Artist Stan Douglas unveils a historical work inspired by political events

Artist Stan Douglas on set in Vancouver for his Penn Station’s Half Century photo series in 2020.Handout

During a blizzard in March 1914, a vaudeville troupe stranded at Penn Station in New York spent the night entertaining. What could such a scene have looked like?

With dramatic lighting and period costumes, Canadian artist Stan Douglas evoked acrobats and musicians for a photographic series dedicated to key moments in the life of the famous Beaux-Arts building before it was demolished in 1963. Penn Station’s Half-Century features elaborate sets that were shot at Vancouver’s Agrodome at the start of the pandemic and then posed on computer-generated recreations of the lost station’s grandiose waiting room.

The images were commissioned as murals for the new Moynihan Train Hall, which opened at what is now Penn Station in December 2020, but the entire series can now also be seen in Canada. The PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art in Montreal has commissioned exhibition prints of the giant photographs as part of a show devoted to the work of Douglas which includes Penn Station’s Half-Century and the series of photos 2012 Disco Angola. Consider it a kind of aperitif for Douglas’ next big mission: he will unveil new works, inspired by the political events of 2011, at the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in April.

Douglas’ photography of past events is usually displayed without any history lesson taped to the wall and often raises an immediate question about context. Does the Montreal or New York viewer need to know about vaudevillian Bert Williams and his stranded performers or – to name just two other scenes featuring folk celebrities arriving at Penn Station – black labor organizer Angelo Herndon or Brooklyn armed robber Celia Cooney?

Knowing all the historical details can enrich the experience, but it should not suggest to the viewer that these works are just records of events.Handout

“It’s always a question with my work. People say, “You have all this history, how can we be expected to know?” I don’t expect it at all,” Douglas said in a recent interview. “People who know this will have a different experience of the work, but there should be something in the pictorial experience that should give you a clue as to what is going on. So it’s not a requirement to know this stuff, but it does make for a richer experience.

Knowing all the historical details can enrich the experience, but this should not suggest to the viewer that these works are merely recordings of events, moments in the life of a station or, in the case of Disco Angola, the unlikely juxtaposition of the Angolan civil war that erupted in 1975 with the simultaneous rise of disco in New York. Instead, the scenes play with storytelling, drawing on the unconscious image-making education we’ve all received through the media to conjure up scenes that are as much about their own creation as their content – hence the title of the Montreal show, Revealing Narratives.

The Penn Station scenes, for example, are visibly scenic, with chiaroscuro lighting and expressive postures. In the most meta moment of the series, Douglas recreates Hollywood by recreating the station for the 1945 film Judy Garland The clock. the Disco Angola series, imagined as the work of a fictional photojournalist who intersperses his travels to the war zone with dance parties, could leave the viewer thinking about how conflict and entertainment are presented on camera.

“If we are informed by our knowledge of the language of film and television, we will understand these works,” said Cheryl Sim, the PHI curator who curated the exhibit and compares Douglas and his photographs to great history painters. of yesteryear. “They have this grandiosity and gravity. There are so many stories that unfold within the frame. … His ability to master composition is at the heart of the work.

Douglas is interested in subplots and small story actors – the now-forgotten characters such as Cooney, the so-called Bobbed-Hair Bandit who robbed Brooklyn stores at gunpoint.

“One of my main habits or interests is to look at minor stories and see how the minor stories actually reflect a larger condition,” he said. He cites the situation of vaudevillians trapped in the station – they had to travel to be entertained – as a specific example of a more general cultural condition: Before movies and television, all entertainment was live.

It is no coincidence that the African diaspora features in many of these forgotten stories: Williams, an American from the Bahamas, broke the color barrier in vaudeville; Herndon was convicted of “insurrection” after his attempts to organize black and white workers in Atlanta. And, in the faded spaces of abandoned downtown Manhattan hotels, disco emerged from black and Latino communities as a counterculture dance movement before it even reached Studio 54.

“I’ve always portrayed black people, but with a very broad sense of what blackness really is. What is Afro-German? Afro-Cuban, Afro-English, Afro-Canadian, Afro- American? All of these types of blackness manifest in different ways,” he said.

Douglas, born in Vancouver to Caribbean immigrants, has a long and subtle relationship with such content. He is unimpressed with the current rage for black art.

Douglas, born in Vancouver to Caribbean immigrants, is unimpressed with the current rage for black art.Handout

“There is a certain homogeneity in the way black bodies are portrayed these days. Unfortunately, you can’t tell the artist is a person of color unless it’s a representative image, and that’s allowed a lot of regressive art to get a lot of exposure. A lot of art that borders on kitsch is shown because it has a black body or something, although there are still a lot of interesting black artists who do non-figurative work, conceptual work.

Educated at what was then the Emily Carr College of Art and Design (now the University), Douglas made his career in Vancouver and, despite ever-growing international attention, still lives there when not teaching at the ‘ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles. Part of the fertile school of West Coast photographic artists that emerged in the 1980s, which also includes Jeff Wall and Ken Lum, he finds Vancouver a useful place to work because its busy film production industry makes it easy to find lighting, costumes and extras.

But it’s not a big enough center for a visual arts practitioner to be stubborn or complacent: Douglas, who has toured the world, will represent Canada in Venice this spring. He is the first black artist to be presented at the Canada Pavilion, but this is not his first Biennale; his work has been included in four previous group exhibitions, the most recent in 2019.

The Venice Biennale always encourages important and surprising unveilings. Douglas therefore keeps the details under his hat, but he gives a general overview of the historical events that will feature in the work. This Biennial, he recalls, was to take place in 2021, a decade after 2011, the year of the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring protests. Douglas will present a series of photographs in the light-drenched Canada Pavilion at the Biennale’s main Giardini site and will screen a video work in an off-site location on the Giudecca. More telling tales are sure to follow.

Educated at what was then the Emily Carr College of Art and Design (now the University), Douglas made his career in Vancouver.Handout

Stan Douglas: Revealing Narratives continues at the PHI Foundation in Montreal until May 22 and will then tour at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax from June to November. The Venice Biennale runs from April 23 to November 27.

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