Vancouver's museums offer artistic, anthropological and taxidermical riches: Vancouver Art Gallery, Bill Reid Gallery, Museum of Anthropology and more.
Vancouver Art Gallery: Don’t be fooled by the word “Gallery.” This downtown art museum is the centerpiece of Vancouver arts activities — and it will literally be hanging its calling card on its outer walls in the coming weeks, with outdoor exhibits facing Robson Street (“CUE: Artists’ Videos,” featuring Gary Hill, William Kentridge and five other video artists) and Georgia Street (a 3-story-high hand-painted mural that is part of “Michael Lin: A Modest Veil”). VAG’s outdoor presence may be pronounced, but you’ll want to step inside, too.
Newcomers to the region can delve into its local arts history with “Visions of British Columbia: A Landscape Manual,” covering a full century of artistic achievement. Emily Carr (1871-1945) holds pride of place here, with a dozen of her oil paintings on display. Most date from the last 15 years of her life when she veered almost into abstraction with her renderings of forest groves and landscapes.
Photographs of early-20th-century Vancouver by John Vanderpant, Haida-influenced sculptures by Bill Reid and the innovative backlit color transparencies of Jeff Wall are part of “Visions” too, which follows its “Landscape” theme right into the 21st century.
VAG’s headline exhibit is “Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man,” on loan from the Royal Collection of Queen Elizabeth II. This a rare opportunity to see all 34 drawings from the artist’s “Anatomical Manuscript A,” dating from 1510-1511.
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The exhibit includes other historic anatomical drawings, including some from “Gray’s Anatomy,” and is complemented by a group show of contemporary art on related themes, “Visceral Bodies,” opening Feb. 6. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Tuesdays until 9 p.m., 750 Hornby St., $7-$19.50, free Feb. 12-28 (604-662-4719 or www.vanartgallery.bc.ca).
Over at the Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite, two blocks west of VAG, near the corner of Thurlow and West Georgia streets, sculptor Ken Lum is installing “from shangri-la to shangri-la,” replicas of shacks-on-stilts that served as home to writer Malcolm Lowry, artist Tom Burrows and Greenpeace’s Dr. Paul Spong in North Vancouver’s Maplewood Mudflats in the early and mid-20th century.
Note: If you overload on art and want to get back into a winter-sports frame of mind, VAG is right next door to the newly reopened Robson Square ice rink, open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., free to the public ($3 skate-rental fee).
Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art: This small museum celebrating the career of artist Bill Reid (1920-1998) opened in May 2008. Starting in the 1950s, Reid drew on his Haida heritage to revitalize the Northwest Coast Arts aesthetic in a big way, mastering a startling variety of media: sculpture, textiles, jewelry and more. He is now so renowned in Canada that two of his sculptures are pictured on the $20 bill. Samples of his work in every medium are on permanent exhibit, including a beautifully mounted display of his silver- and goldsmithing work.
Bill Reid Gallery also highlights the latest in First Nations artwork. Its new exhibit,”Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast,” features 22 works by young artists blending traditional and contemporary influences in energizing ways. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 639 Hornby St., $5-$10 (604-682-3455 or www.billreidgallery.ca).
UBC Museum of Anthropology: Anyone interested in First Nations art, both traditional and contemporary, won’t want to miss this impressive museum overlooking the Strait of Georgia, on the fringes of the University of British Columbia campus. Historic carvings, totem poles and artifacts from Coast Salish, Haida, Tlingit and other tribes can be found here, along with Bill Reid’s mighty “The Raven and the First Men” (1980) carved from a block of yellow cedar.
MOA just opened “Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures,” a contemporary show featuring artists from Malaysia, England, Sri Lanka, France, Canada, Samoa and Australia. And it recently expanded its “Visible Storage” galleries into mazelike “Multiversity Galleries” where, behind glass, roughly 15,000 objects — masks, baskets, ceramics — demonstrate “materials and technologies from societies all over the world.” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Tuesdays until 9 p.m., 6393 N.W. Marine Drive, $7-$14 (604-822-5087 or www.moa.ubc.ca).
Museum of Vancouver: Just over Burrard Bridge from downtown, on the shores of English Bay, the Museum of Vancouver is hosting an unexpectedly compelling show: “Ravishing Beasts: The Strangely Alluring World of Taxidermy.”
The exhibit addresses the history, aesthetics and science of taxidermy, and curator Rachel Poliquin brings both humor and imagination to her task. The reasons to preserve an animal through taxidermy, she notes, were various: “to flaunt a hunter’s skill, to immortalize a cherished pet, to archive an extinct species … even to deceive.” (Among the specimens is an incredibly convincing “jackalope.”)
Poliquin persuasively argues that nature documentaries can’t replace an animal’s physical presence: “A moose and a hummingbird are the same size on a television screen. In the flesh, there is no comparison.” You’ll find a passenger pigeon and hula bird — both extinct — on display.
You can also see the lion that starred with Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum,” filmed in Vancouver. (Hollywood memorabilia collectors, take note: it’s for sale.) Poliquin’s taxidermy-obsessed Web site, www.ravishingbeasts.com, is well worth a visit. Also of interest: MOV’s permanent exhibit on the history of the city, which includes film shot by Seattle filmmaker William Harbeck from the front of a Vancouver streetcar in 1907. An excellent DVD about this rare footage is on sale at the ticket desk. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, Thursdays until 8 p.m., 1100 Chestnut St., $7-$11 (604-736-4431 or www.museumofvancouver.ca).
Vancouver Biennale: Founded in 1998, this outdoor exhibit of sculpture from around the world is open 24/7 to the public. The theme of the 2009-11 edition is “in-transit-ion,” and many of the works are along bike routes and the stations of the newly opened Canada Line rail link to Richmond and Vancouver International Airport. The focus, the curators say, is on “the physical movement of people in our mobile society.”
The biennale offers a perfect excuse to explore Vancouver’s waterside parks. In Vancouver’s West End, you’ll find “Walking Figures” by Magdalena Abakanowicz (English Bay Beach Park), “A-maze-ing Laughter” by Yue Minjun (Morton Park, at the corner of Denman and Davie) and “Meeting” by Wang Shugang at (Cardero Park, on the Coal Harbor Seawalk).
If you’re in the West End, don’t miss the chance to follow the sea wall around Stanley Park. It’s a great urban-oasis work of art unto itself. You’ll find plentiful detail on art works and their sites at www.vancouverbiennale.com.
Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times arts writer