Coming of age in the heady photo-conceptualist decade of the 1980s, Vikky Alexander quickly rose to be among the most visually challenging and thought-provoking Canadian contemporary artists.

She became known for her insightful investigations of the found and appropriated image, the artificial representation of enclosed nature, and the cultural seduction of both space and place. It was almost as if she was holding up a dark mirror to our beauty- obsessed era and showing us who we really were beneath the surface of all that bright and shiny glitter.

Irony drips off the smooth textures of her multi-panel piece Obsession (1983), for instance, with sacred supermodel Christie Brinkley, the ultimate golden uptown girl, standing in as an airbrushed female saint figure. Peering into the deep-blue void of Between Dreaming and Living Series #5 (1986) subtly reminds us that we can never really be sure if we’re awake or asleep—which is exactly the way that both the mass media and consumer society prefer their customers to be: interstitial, liminal, hovering between hyper-desire and permanently suspended satisfaction.

A First Retrospective

This exquisitely curated and installed retrospective of more than eighty works, the first for an artist who demands and deserves our full attention, is cleverly juxtaposed with a concurrent show of Robert Rauschenberg’s deeply resonating works from 1965 to 1980. This is the ideal context for situating Alexander’s overall œuvre, as both artists blur the boundaries between media, mixing and merging materials and ideas in a daring use of everyday images culled from a popular culture that moved too fast to fully delve into its own messaging.

Alexander has built her career by cultivating a crisp montage of images devoted to unravelling the mechanisms of display that shape meaning and desire in Western culture.

Extreme Beauty, so strangely similar to the entertainment format of ultimate or extreme fighting, deftly demonstrates how Alexander has built her career by cultivating a crisp montage of images devoted to unravelling the mechanisms of display that shape meaning and desire in Western culture. By stripping consumer systems of their mystifying and signifying but largely unconscious strategies, Alexander, like Rauschenberg, encourages us to fully embrace the shimmering intersection between making art and living life. Indeed, both artists have astutely interrogated mass media via skilful use of media techniques of seriality, repetition, recursion, and glitz, all resulting in a profound deconstruction of the flimsy assumptions that we choose to live by.

These days, the 1980s feel almost like another planet, not just another age. Indeed, the provocatively titled Extreme Beauty showcases Alexander’s multifaceted examinations of mediated beauty and its cultural consumption as an otherworldly commodity via her surprisingly elastic art practice, which encompasses photography, sculpture, collage, and installation. Her clear-eyed gaze falls upon mall interiors, retail-shop windows, model apartment suites, tightly controlled public gardens, and even large-scale murals advertising nothing but themselves.

Dreaming and Living Series #5 (1986)
Inkjet print with coloured Plexiglas. International Center of Photography
Gift of Vikky Alexander (2000)

About Appropriation

Originally from Victoria, British Columbia, a graduate of the experimental hotbed of NSCAD, and a long-time resident of Vancouver (her studio is currently based in Montreal), Alexander’s take on her job description as a producer of cultural artefacts is as concise as the conceptual brevity contained in her stunning assemblages of media tropes and fashion and advertising enticements: “My job as an artist is to figure out how things work.” Her recapitulations of art-historical references can also be succinctly neo-baroque in their surrender to the immersive sensory experiences that we all seem to long for.

An artist friend of mine (a filmmaker who uses found and appropriated footage in his re-creations) recently asked me a tongue-in-cheek rhetorical question: “When is appropriation appropriate?” A great many captivating artworks demonstrate how a well-intentioned study of our image addictions can provide answers visually rather than verbally. Appropriation is thus most appropriate when it is creatively utilized by an astute artist to aesthetically critique the poli­tical or social implications of whatever the image or idea at hand might be: creative deconstruction via drastic recycling and retelling.

In the hands of an experienced image interrogator such as Alexander, whose retrospective exhibition takes us deep into the territory of Western culture’s subliminal obsessions and its fetishistic fixations on the surface of things and people, the results are at once revealing, engaging, and unnerving. Echoing and embodying the basic premise of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, artists such as Alexander have mined the image-archive of popular culture in search of the lost or missing aura that evapo­rates upon replication and mass transmission.

For conceptual artists such as Alexander, appropriation is thus a brilliant strategy for making us reconsider what we usually take for granted. Beauty, for instance. I do believe that she has figured out “how things work” after all.

Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty
Vancouver Art Gallery
July 6, 2019—January 26, 2020