Photographs provided by Lisa Birke
With a body of work that includes an eclectic mix of mass media, pop culture, and kitsch imagery, Vancouver-based artist Lisa Birke often incorporates black humor into her paintings, drawings and sculptural installation work. While her own unique wit play a large role in her richly colored pieces, social commentary on consumption, human impact on the environment, biological manipulation, and observations on how the technological world is affecting art practice and distribution also play major roles in her collections. In her work, we not only find intricate brushstrokes and pieces that fall somewhere between surrealism and collage, we also find pieces that fall beyond pure aesthetics, and content that challenges the viewer and encourages a personal dialog, be it internal or external. In addition to maintaining a prolific presence on the Vancouver art scene, and with commercial solo exhibitions in Canada, the United States, and the Netherlands, Lisa has also served as an art educator for the past 10 years, and has given numerous lectures on her work, travels, and creative process.
Above: Great Canadian Sugar High
Can you talk a bit about your inclusion of Canadiana in your work? Is it intended to be humorous or a call for Canadians to acknowledge their own unique history which is often ignored or taken for granted being that it’s such a young country?
I caught the backpacking bug early in order to feed my fascination for the 'other', and one of my favorite things is sitting on a rickety bus while moving through exotic smears of color. Through the observation of other cultures and people through this constantly moving picture window, I have become engrossed in a type of visual voyeurism both at home and abroad. Every time I fly home to Canada from a trip, I am struck by the familiar green-grey hues of the wet west coast, and I wanted to see Canada through the same exotic lens as the other places that I've visited. For my “Canadiana” work, I put on some tinted tourist goggles to ask how we sell and advertise Canada as a country abroad. Can a country be visually catalogued and sold at all, and at what price?
Above: Great Canadian Beaver Rally
This all became the catalyst for my sarcastic yet loving portrayal of the stereotypes and commercialism in Canada. I explore, for example, our values about freedom and equality through “beavers” dancing their way around a maypole, and of our Canadian habit of sugar coating everything in “Great Canadian Sugar High”. The “Cloned Mounted Army” was a reflection of the cookie cutter image of the ‘Due South’ Canadian; an individual that is seen as always ready to help, nationalistic, and humbly proud. However, in this painting, each clone is an individual, and each one is a little crazed and unique within the tapestry of the whole.
Above: Great Canadian Cloned Mounted Army 2050
With a body of work that includes painting, drawing, installation, and performance art; is there a particular medium in your art practice that you feel the most comfortable with, and/or that you feel best helps to illustrate your ideas?
I always seem to gravitate towards painting, as there is something so immediate and simple about squeezing out colors and making a new world magically appear on a blank slate of canvas. At the same time, I find it very challenging to make a good painting, as there are a million and one solutions to portraying any one idea. My paintings always take on a life of their own and rarely turn out how I originally anticipated.
Above: Lost Love
My pieces are like beasts onto themselves, and I just attempt to reign them in as best as I can (which makes the whole process very exciting). Quite often, I can’t contain the paintings, and then the sculpture, installation, and performance seem to leak out of them, to supplement and further inform them. I also love the idea of walking into an all-encompassing space in terms of an exhibition, and for these reasons I tend to make my shows more like installations rather than a simple series of individual paintings.
Above: Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
In works such as “Guinea Ball” and “The Artist: Cloned”, we see multiple images of animal references combined with human engineering experiments and mishaps. While many of these images are hilarious, I get the feeling that you may feel a bit uneasy about bioengineering, and are addressing it here in your work. Can you talk a bit about the choice to address these modern-day experiments and advances in science?
In my work, I have been exploring the relationship that we as human beings have with nature for quite some time. We often tend to see ourselves apart from it, and sometimes even master of it, yet at the same time we are completely at it's mercy (this having become so blatantly apparent through the current global warming phenomenon). I am interested in questioning and encouraging people think about global environmental and scientific issues through my work.
Above: Guinea Ball
I believe that we're playing with fire when we attempt to manipulate the natural process of evolution, and my uneasiness is played out in my “Clones, Hybrids and Techno-beasts” series. This body of work is an Alice in Wonderland-like fairyland gone horribly awry. The individual paintings of the clones and hybrids read almost like cages in a zoo, and the creatures stare vacantly back at the viewer, turning the tables and making the viewer feel as though they are the ones trapped in the science lab (the white cube of the gallery). Many of my works also depict humans in animal suits that are trapped within piles of furry beasts, showing that inevitably our experiments on animals will have inescapable consequences for us as a species.
Above: Hy-pets: Man's Best Friend Of The Future
Along with my dread, I also carry an equally potent sense of wonder and excitement about the potential that these experiments have, and will have on our lives. I am constantly overwhelmed by the complexity of life, and realize that our current knowledge would not exist without modern scientific advancements.
Above: The Artist: Cloned
On a more conceptual level, I am interested in the categorization, piling, and layering of subject matter, and this concept has been a thread that has helped to tie much of my work together from the beginning. Repetition and filling of space (or in in this case cloning), has also been an important form of expression for me. On a formal level, my paintings are created through a type of scientific method of image organization.
You have a beautiful whimsy in your work, like we see in pieces such as “The Cinderella Story”, but much of this whimsy isn’t light and airy, but dark, witty, and political. Can you talk a bit about this particular piece as well as your motivation to combine the humorous and the dark in many of your pieces?
In my childhood, I was raised a Disney kid with an inbred unflinching optimism that was rounded out by happy endings. In our North American generation of excess, we have everything that we could ever dream of and yet, we take it for granted. The blue skies optimism that I inherently felt due to my childhood is currently being clouded over by the undeniable economic and environmental global crisis.
“Cinderella Story” is a painting about our urban sprawl spiraling out of control. The song birds in this piece represent idealism, and they are fleeing from the scene. It will require a massive mending job to hold together the fabric of our current existence and consumption, and it's time that we embrace the idea of rags at our ball.
Above: Cinderella Story
Humor has always been a way for me to deal with some very serious ideas and subject matter. Comics and laughter have the power to enlighten and make us think without being preachy. They serve as a bridge that invite the viewer into a piece through a belly laugh, but then hits them in the head with a good dose of contemplation at the same time (a kind of double whammy).
I also feel that there is so much seriousness and elitism in the art world. Throwing in a joke now and again is a breath of fresh air, and reminds us all of our follies and that art is just another way of making sense of life and the world. I like the idea of the artist as the town clown that keeps the world in check and holds the entire narrative together.
Above: A Dalmation, Her One Hundred Clones, And Their Owner
You’re a 1999 graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, have recently served as an alumni ambassador for the school, and currently teach classes in their fine art department, as well as at Simon Fraser University. Can you speak a bit about the artist as educator?
I love art and hope to share this love with the public. I also believe that educating as many people as possible in the arts will help to feed a cycle that will only strengthen the entire art community; a community that will give back seven fold. I also get inspired by my students, and their experimentation keeps me trying new things myself, so it does feed both ways. Rather than hermitting in my studio every day (which can become debilitatingly lonely), I get to engage with the community through teaching. I also love providing the skills that foster creativity. Humans are innately creative, and I believe that if more people made art and were able to express themselves more freely, we would have a lot fewer problems in the world. Ah the cheesy adage (I love the clichés!), “make love, not war” could easily be adapted here to read “make art, not war”!
Above: Flash In The Pan
What artists do you find inspiring? Are there any up and coming talents that we should be keeping an eye out for, in your opinion?
I am inspired by a whole host of artists both young and old. My favorite contemporary artists at the moment (it tends to change quite frequently) are Glenn Brown, Dana Schutz, Daniel Richter, Bernard Heisig, Pia Fries, Inka Essenhigh, Antony Gormley, and Ron Mueck, but I will always be influenced by the old masters and by the Group of Seven.
Above: Lost Innocence
Your work is currently carried by the Bau-xi Gallery in Vancouver and Toronto, and is featured on Artnet.com, and Saatchi online. What is the best way for people who are interested in your work to contact you for pricing and sales?
My new work and selections from past bodies of work can be purchased through Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, BC and Toronto, ON, and a number of smaller works can also be found at View Art Gallery in Victoria, BC. For inquiries about works from the “Clones, Hybrids and Techno-beasts”, “Cosmetically Challenged Abstracts”, and “Search Engine” series, I can be contacted directly through my website email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have new gallery shows lined up for this year? Where will we be able to experience your work in person?
I am currently working on a new collection that uses sport as a catalyst for exploring social, environmental, and personal issues. This series entitled “2010” will be exhibited at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics in February. I will post images from the new work on my website sometime in the fall of 2009.
I have also recently participated in a project called “Stone Soup” in association with Vantage Art Projects at Grace Gallery in Vancouver this June. Check here for the catalog: http://www.blogcatalog.com/blog/vantage-art-projects, and here for video footage of all four days of the mural’s progression: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7iuhWBFzOc.
I also have a couple of smaller works at the View Gallery in Victoria this summer which can be viewed here, and a painting that is touring with “Arena: The Art of Hockey”, and is on view at several public art galleries around the country in association with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia which can be viewed here.
Written by Ehren Seeland
For more information on Lisa Birke, her body of work, reviews,
and her CV, visit her site at: http://www.lisabirke.com/
To contact Lisa Birke:
Bau-xi Gallery Vancouver
Director: Riko Nakasone
3045 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC V6H 3J9
Tel: (604) 733-7011
Fax: (604) 733-3211
Bau-xi Gallery Toronto
Director: Tien Huang
340 Dundas Street West
Toronto, ON M5T 1G5
Tel: (416) 977-0600
Fax: (416) 977-0625
For all other questions or comments, please contact Lisa Birke at: email@example.com