Monday, June 28, 2004

Coupland at DX - N. Post, June 26, 2004

Not everyone knows that Douglas Coupland, the Vancouver-based novelist and city guide book writer, is also an artist. In fact, he was an artist before he became a writer. It’s just that when his first novel, Generation X, became the literary beacon of a whole swathe of disenfranchised youth back in 1991, his art just wasn’t as conspicuously public. Once in a while his brightly coloured sculptures, shaped like giant bottles of Tide and Sunlight dishwashing detergent, turn up in exhibitions in his hometown, and occasionally Monte Clark Gallery in Toronto puts up some of his still-life photographs. But Coupland’s been more serious about his art than many realize.

Canada House, which opens at the Design Exchange on Canada Day (this coming Thursday), is the title of his latest body of work, a gathering of sculptures assembled out of waterlogged foam, hand-stitched crazy quilts, custom-designed home furnishings, and a number of two-headed push-me-pull-you Canadian geese which Coupland has made by gluing plastic decoys together. Canadian art has never looked more patriotic. It’s like this is his one-man mission to update Canada’s hoser and mullet reputation with a whole new lifestyle nip-and-tuck not imagined since Moshe Safdie built Habitat.

There won’t be a house though, not as there was when this project was first installed last November in Vancouver. Coupland found a house that was about to be demolished, a classic 1950s bungalow, the kind that line the cul-de-sacs of Don Mills. He took it over for the run of the exhibition and had the entire interior -- including walls, floors, stove burners and the flatstone fireplace -- sprayed with three coats of white paint, giving the house a gallery-white seriousness as well as a modish effect, like something out of a James Bond flick. The allover whiteness also made it look like the house was covered in a layer of ice. A rather appropriate frozen-in-time look, given the Northern theme of this exhibition.

Canada House at DX is the contents of that house only -- the art and objects Coupland has made with comical Canadiana detail. It takes a moment of looking at sculptures made out Canadian Tire hubcaps and wooden Hydro wire tower object to realize just how quintessentially Canadian these things really are.

One of the furniture designs is a Victorian-style kissing seat with cushions made out of hunting jacket wool. One seat has blue checker cushions, the other is in red checks. I take the red-blue divide to be a reference to Liberals and Tories, though it could just as easily be the divide between French and English, Eastern and Western Canada, First Nations and everyone else. Coupland has titled the platonic loveseat "Two Solitudes," and physically it looks like Charles Eames meets Bob and Doug McKenzie.

A dozen or so floor lamps have been made out of bouys that have been rubbed down to soft pillow after by years of bobbing around in Arctic waters. They’ve been stacked vertically like totem poles. On the walls are quilts embedded with hubcaps and perforated with catgut dream catchers.

Canada House, as you can gather, is chalk full of punchlines. In fact, it is just this kind of easy-to-read cultural mixing-and-matching that tends to irk some critics of Coupland’s books, those who sense he is too much in love with branding to be a legitimate satirist of modern times.

Last Tuesday evening, at a talk Coupland gave at the DX, and in discussion with designer Bruce Mau, he compared his creative process to dumpster diving. "I love dumpster diving," he said squirming happily and neurotically in his chair. "You don’t know what’s swirling in the mess."

Personally, I don’t mind Coupland’s glib style of creativity, in his art or his writing. Saying his books aren’t all that deep is like criticizing sitcoms for being too superficial. I tend to read his books the same way I watch videos -- while doing something else, like patting the cat or replacing batteries in things. He really just wants, as he says, to dumpster dive through the beautiful ugliness of modern life. And because he is so affectionate about our insatiable narcissism, he’s become one of the most astute observers of human freakishness. Coupland is the ring barer of Gen Xers, microserfers, and highschool gunmen not by inventing anything, but by being the first to transplant cultural phenomena into a form of art. It’s a kind of Andy Warhol approach to mastering superficiality.
Canada House is the art version of what Coupland does in his novels – a distillation of culture. That kind of fast-paced simplicity is can be silly enough to dismiss, but then you can look at it another way. If Coupland were a comedian he’d be Rick Mercer when he’s doing his political rants while walking and turning corners really fast. The pace, the style, the directness of it all turns rather common viewpoints into poignant observations. You really can’t separate Coupland’s art from his books or from who he is, just like Mercer needs to be walking and ranting all at once. It’s a package deal. The art is one thing, but "Coupland Country" is pretty darn good.

Last thing of note: This exhibition also coincides with release of Coupland’s newest title Souvenir of Canada 2, which includes images of the first Canada House in the Vancouver bungalow.

Canada House runs July 1 to August 29 at Design Exchange, 234 Bay Street. DX$8 (but free admission on Canada Day)

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