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How do artists picture the city?

New exhibit, Beyond Vague Terrain, at Surrey Art Gallery; Opening reception Jan. 14
This fabricated image called The Phoenix Complex

A city offers both beauty and banality. It is repetitious and dynamic; it can appear to stay the same, yet change drastically over a short period of time.

Surrey Art Galley’s newest exhibition, Beyond Vague Terrain: The City and the Serial Image, shows many sides to cities, especially Metro Vancouver’s. The ambitious, and in many cases large-scale, artworks include a grid of shimmering graphite rubbings of eroded date-stamped sidewalks on Vancouver’s Westside, a 109-foot-long light box presenting a panorama of Metro Vancouver as seen from a moving SkyTrain, and an interactive photographic database of every bus stop in Surrey.

Through photography, painting, drawing, and video, artists have used the strategy of multiple images to create compelling ways of representing experiences of the city.

The artists in the exhibition are Sylvia Grace Borda, Michael de Courcy, Chris Gergley, Jeremy Herndl, Bill Jeffries, Roy Kiyooka, Owen Kydd, Khan Lee, Helma Sawatzky, Susan Schuppli, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Neil Wedman.

Beyond Vague Terrain launches on Jan. 14 with an opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m., and continues to March 18. Admission to this exhibition is by donation.

Many of the images explore urban spaces characterized by vast swaths of street intersections, industrial dead zones, and suburban sprawl. These ‘defeatured landscapes’, as they came to be known, brought international attention to Vancouver’s art scene – particularly photography – in the 1980s and early 1990s. The architect and philosopher Ignasi de Solà-Morales referred to these sorts of urban landscapes as a "terrain vague."

Beyond Vague Terrain brings together works from this historical period, as well as new works. In this exhibition, the multiplicity of images within a single artwork is featured, rather than the individual pictures normally associated with artistic representations of urban landscapes. These serial artworks – both photographic and non-photographic – challenge the notion of the city centre, and ask that its margins be re-imagined, just as the idea of the generic city is challenged when a place’s specific qualities and histories are revealed.

In addition to the strong sense of realism that runs through much of the art, there is also a keen interest on the part of the artists to capture the dynamic aspects of time related to the modern city. Some artworks seek to collapse time and space.

For example, Helma Sawatzky’s recombined images of a new building site in South Surrey speak to the rapid development of this part of the Lower Mainland. Other artworks use a fixed frame method to capture the shifting activities of the city and its landscape. Roy Kiyooka’s street photographs freeze moving figures and passing vehicles against storefront facades in late-1970s East Vancouver. Owen Kydd’s moving-still images of Kingsway convey a complex melancholy and rich fabric of the city, while Jeremy Herndl’s series of paintings depict an ever transforming view across a sparsely populated Whalley neighbourhood in North Surrey.

It is often claimed that in the digital era every photograph has been taken countless times over, and therefore every landscape has been documented. Can it similarly be claimed that every series of images or combination of spaces has already been pictured? Beyond Vague Terrain: The City and the Serial Image brings together a wide breadth of documentary approaches to capturing the dynamics of the city, with an emphasis on picturing its everyday features and overlooked urban forms from 1970 to the present.

Concurrent to Beyond Terrain Vague: The City and the Serial Image, Surrey Art Gallery is presenting a tactile sound work by artist Kristin Roos as part of Open Sound 2012: On Air, Underground – Making the Inaudible Audible, which is guest curated by Ross Birdwise, and runs from Jan. 14 to Dec. 16.

A Curator’s Tour with Jordan Strom will take place Feb. 9, 7-8:30 p.m.

The Surrey Art Gallery is located at 13750 88 Ave. Phone 604-501-5566 or check for further details.