Sean Alward


False Creek Midden (installation view,2012): 40 x 8.5 feet, acrylic on linen pieces. Images courtesy the artist and Access Art Gallery, Vancouver.False Creek Midden (installation view,2012). 40 x 8.5 feet, acrylic on linen pieces. Images courtesy the artist and Access Art Gallery, Vancouver.

By Jenny Gagalka

Sean Alward
Access Art Gallery
Oct. 27 – Dec. 22, 2012

Two years ago, Chinese artist Song Dong’s Waste Not exhibition appeared at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Thousands of everyday objects were displayed as an archive of the life of his late mother. Although the objects were meant to be used, most had never been. Considering Dong’s useful old things, Sean Alward’s new work in the exhibition A Vertical City Goes Both Ways, makes me think of useless old things; forgotten objects that survive through time and somehow re-surface into significance. Referencing the rich landscape of Vancouver’s past and present, Alward brings an archeological sensibility to his paintings. And, in doing so, digs deep into what can be seen and what cannot.

Parallel to the exhibition, Alward published an article in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight that contextualizes his point of departure with this exhibition. Unbeknownst to most people, myself included, Vancouver is physically built upon ancient sites – middens – that are rich in artefacts belonging to people who lived here thousands of years ago. We are blind to a history dating 1,500 to 4,000 years ago buried beneath our 126-year-old city. In a conversation with the artist, he made it clear that he brought back no ephemera from the sites. There is, after all, nothing to see now anyways. Instead, he worked through the space and time between the known and unknown.

Shadow (Marpole Midden), 2012: 16 x20 inches, inkjet print, cyanotype and undeveloped C- print paper.Shadow (Marpole Midden), 2012. 16 x20 inches, inkjet print, cyanotype and undeveloped C-print paper.A Vertical City Goes Both Ways, includes two challenging groups of work bound to the gallery’s walls. Sifting through False Creek Midden 1 (all works 2012), comprised of hundreds of small acrylic paintings on mostly rectangular fragments of linen, one discovers found and faked objects embedded in the paintings such as real coins or a phony shoe. These ‘real’ objects are scarce and easily overlooked if you are not observing closely. Are these artefacts from a busy studio from which the artist is long gone? After all, as works of art, they will continue to exist long after the artist has passed on. The artist admittedly agrees that these paintings do not function individually. To see the paintings separately they look like nothing more than Rorschach blots, or the occasional leaf imprint. But, seeing hundreds clumped together, arranged in layers by colour, they are perceived as pelvic bones or other human remains. It is their nothingness grouped together that forms a certain environment.

A sudden visual disconnect occurs as one moves past this piece. The amorphous mass snakes around the corner and fades into white-wall nothingness. Filling this gap is one of several framed photographs whose formal elements are either extended or enhanced by watercolour and acrylic painting. Different from the works on linen, Alward allows the didactic, so-called ‘authenticity’ of a photograph to guide the movement of his material. We are led to believe that the landscape photographs used are of the midden sites as they exist in the present. Because of their clean slickness and conventional display, these works are reminiscent of real estate developments like the ones built upon Vancouver’s middens. Whereas the framed works are finished products, confined and modular, Alward’s works on linen are infinite and suggest a world beyond their object-ness.

It would be easy to believe these two groups of work belong to different decades or two different artists. This disjunction points to the rich-though-unseen stories and objects that Alward asks us to consider. Whereas Dong’s objects come from a specific person, place and time, Alward considers the un-person, un-place and un-time. Objects without use carry with them an aura of mystery; if we cannot understand their purpose we cannot understand them. This aura allows us to contemplate ideas of what something could be rather than what it already is. Alward’s exhibition does just that, and further considers the paradoxical nature of painting – precise in its own history, yet continuously additive and destructive and always failing to define exactly what is.