Review: Somatic by Catherine Owen
Listen to the subtle melodies of assonance, the call and response of slant rhyme feeding the reader through to the turn. Notice the repetition of single syllable words, an insistent rhythm. Owen uses sound like a lure, seduces the reader with music.
The poems of Somatic are inspired by the life and work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Published twenty years ago, this was Owen’s first book (the author gifted me a copy at a reading we did together) and the verse is grounded in the themes she continues to explore: art, love, death, desire, and the nature of the muse.
An interesting polyphony develops as the poems accrue. Subtle shifts in voice help the poems differentiate themselves, but have the effect on this reader of too much too soon. I wanted to dwell for longer with some sounds, rhythms, rather than following “their fine disturbances.” (42) Maybe it’s just the collection is short and no dominant voice develops fully. Still, if there is a through line, it is of distance, the poet-observer, Owen conscious of the humanity of the artist and of his subjects, the viewer and viewed, “the white brushed so lightly / around the brown / was done to suggest spirit, / the body’s other skin.” (34)
Owen’s interpretation of Schiele urges a drawing close of the dark, sexual, and for whatever reason ‘forbidden’ by society: “to take the darkness and draw / it ever deeper.” (41) The sexuality in the poems reflects Schiele's art, the times, and the character, but it also points to empowerment through sexual liberation and the freedom of living outside societal norms. Schiele paid a steep price when he was jailed for public immorality. He was never the same after:
With twenty-four days, your self-portraits
changed, the eyes no longer flaunted
a haughty pose of youth but become pools,
disturbed by stones so huge that ripples
bellied out over the surface, blind and unceasing.
“Prison, Neulengbach, 1912” (46)
There’s that music again, delivering the tragedy of Schiele’s life and the intense beauty of his art in equal measure. The narrative is black but the buoyancy of the language ensures accessibility to darkness. Somatic stands as a testament to the dangers of the rebel life and of non-conformity, and at the same time, prophets the necessity of following one’s truth, whatever the consequence.
Most people know Douglas Coupland for his language. The Vancouver based writer and artist is the author of over twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, his first and possibly most well known, Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture, defined a generation of slacker youth engrossed with pop-culture and meaningless McJobs.
It was fitting then that Coupland dedicated one claustrophobic nook in his new solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything, to his books. His work is acutely aware of history while defiantly looking toward the future.
Collecting artworks from the past fourteen years with over 100 on display in a variety of mediums including installation, painting, photography, prints, sculpture, and furniture, the exhibition explores themes around technology, cultural identity, and how we live in the 21st century. Coupland uses his talent for accessibility by meshing big ideas and a healthy dose of humour.
In an interview with CBC, Coupland said about his artistic work, that he is “living in both time and space. Writing exists in time and art exists in space.” Approaching middle age with a greying yet full beard, Coupland still effortlessly embodies theoretical futurism with a wink and smirk.
The sheer number of objects in the show is immediately apparent and overwhelming. Greeted by a wall of more than 300 pieces from plastic building kits arranged in horizontal lines, the first few rooms are overflowing with items, from a small pile of Hawkins Cheezies on a plywood shelf, to debris from the Fukushima nuclear disaster that washed ashore in Haida Gwaii.
“Douglas Coupland’s work sheds light on subjects as varied as the distinct nature of Canadian identity, the rise of utopian ideas, the power of words, the presence of digital technologies, the significance of the everyday, and the unshakeable nature of one’s own constitution—ideas that Coupland examines with both optimism and some trepidation.” said Daina Augaitis, Vancouver Art Gallery’s Chief Curator/Associate Director.
Slogans for the 21st Century, 172 brightly coloured meme-like aphorisms that speak in the irreverent zeitgeist of Internet language, surrounds viewers on all sides, the panels covering the walls from floor to ceiling. “The future feels like homework,” one says. “Real time often feels like neither,” says another. One becomes caught in the bluntness of it all, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
What is most surprising (yet shouldn’t be to those who have read his books) is the diversity of the material in everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. While the funny and charismatic Coupland is a large part of the show, there is a darker vision of the present and future that is also expressed throughout. The twisted steel form of a high voltage tower in The Ice Storm and the paint-obscured faces of Brilliant Information Overload Pop Head express a chaos that runs through the heart of modern life.
“Marking the first solo museum exhibition dedicated to the art of one of the most thought-provoking artists working today, everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything reflects the Gallery’s strong commitment to provide a global platform for local artists,” said Kathleen S. Bartels, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery. “We are thrilled to be the first museum to present this survey of Coupland’s work and hope this exhibition will inspire audiences of all backgrounds and generations to consider what defines contemporary Canadian culture.”
Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything and Gumhead run until September 1, 2014 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.