by Courtney R. Thompson
Walking into Ron Terada’s current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) was an out-of-country experience. As a Canadian, I was curious about how the MCA was going to convey Terada’s Vancouverite roots and Canuck art heritage in its wall text. Terada is hard to shoehorn in terms of his influences, with many a passive-aggressive wink-and-a-smile to materials, artists, and movements. Is he a card-carrying second generation member of the Vancouver photoconceptual school; rubbing shoulders with Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, and Rodney Graham? Depends on whom you ask. My feeling is that Terada is more interested in checking shoulders rather than rubbing them.
The exhibition begins with Who I Think I Am (2010), a photograph of Terada’s hand pointing to a catalog image of Jack Goldstein, a Canadian artist who came up through the MFA program at CalArts in the early 1970s; a golden moment where John Baldessari reigned as mentor and influence. Goldstein’s tale is one of despair and disenchantment with the art world, and he committed suicide after many years of drug abuse and stalled recognition. Terada’s pointed gesture is intriguing, especially in the expanded conversation between the artists in the first gallery. A series of fifteen canvases entitled Jack (2011), literally paint a picture of an artist coming to terms with the pressures of being an artist. A selection of text from Goldstein’s memoir is hand painted onto canvas and has an ambiguous quality in an institutional setting. There is a wonderful sense of placelessness, not only in reading Goldstein’s lifted words, but also in how Terada positions himself within or perhaps outside of them. I found myself turning the question on myself. Who do I think Terada is? The answer is refreshingly tricky, despite the bizarre wall text introducing Terada as a Vancouver artist.
According to the MCA’s exhibition wall text, Vancouver artists are hyper-aware of being Canadian. As opposed to other less aware cities in Canada, I presume? This statement confused me, as did another proclaiming, “how different this Canadian artist’s concerns are from those of his American contemporaries.” This muddled dialog might work if you know Terada’s flippant attitude towards perceptions of a “Vancouver school,” and his artworks that exploit the currency of artist canonization—he has done a number of pieces that exploit the structure of the art magazine or exhibition catalog, but I wasn’t necessarily convinced.
Ron Terada. Stay Away from Lonely Places, 2005. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.
Moving into the next gallery I was confronted with Entering City of Vancouver (2002), a familiar looking highway regulation sign lit garishly in the darkened gallery. The sign is a nice introduction to a space framed with other signage pieces, including another highway counterpart, You Have Left the American Sector (2006/11), a new piece with Spanish text, rather than the French of the earlier work, that plays on the language of boundaries. Across, but slightly displaced from one another were two illuminated signs, Stay Away From Lonely Places (2011), and Being There (2011). The works humorously and nearly simultaneously communicate the isolated experience of viewing an art work in a cavernous space, and the inevitable exclamation of many an art encounter as one of absolute presence.
This is Terada’s first solo exhibition in the United States, and in fact my first time seeing his work in person, despite sharing the same Northern soil for over thirty years; an experience that left me feeling somewhat othered about my Canadian heritage and a little placeless myself.
-Courtney R. Thompson, Contributing ArtSlant Writer
(top image: Ron Terada, See Other Side of Sign, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.)