Target Practice: Douglas Coupland takes aim at public art

Douglas Coupland: Group Portrait 1957 (installation view, 2011): Purchase 2011, Permanent Collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa.Douglas Coupland: Group Portrait 1957 (installation view, 2011): Purchase 2011, Permanent Collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa.

By Elena Potter

On September 24, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) in Oshawa unveiled a permanent installation by multidisciplinary heavyweight Douglas Coupland. Most readers will probably recognize Coupland as the author of novels such as Generation X and Microserfs, which captured the slacker zeitgeist of the 1990s. Although he still continues to write, Coupland’s first love has always been visual art. (He graduated from Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 1984.) Over the past several years, however, Coupland has become a prolific artist, showing his work in commercial galleries and museums across Canada, and producing a number of public art commissions. Magenta contributor Elena Potter corresponded with Coupland by e-mail, catching him in what he called a moment of “good mood, free time and lucidity”, in advance of the unveiling of his commission at RMG. Here, he talks about the pleasures of producing public art, and the inspiration behind the installation.

Douglas Coupland: Group Portrait 1957: (installation view, 2011).Douglas Coupland: Group Portrait 1957: (installation view, 2011).Elena Potter (EP): You've created some other public art before — I pass by your toy soldiers monument at the corner of Fleet and Bathurst Streets frequently. What is your interest in public art, and what kind of challenges does its creation present?

Douglas Coupland (DC): Yes, The Monument to the War of 1812 (2008). I love that piece. In a very selfish way, public art allows one to make big things in a way that's financially impossible on a private level. I'm certainly not a jeweller when it comes to scale. There's also a social dimension to public art that I enjoy. I've met so many people in the process that I would never have met otherwise. And, finally, I keep learning more and more about materials from doing public art: bronze, lacquers, resins, metals...each project has its own learning curve. Sometimes, in a good way, it feels like engineering.

EP: When an installation is meant to be permanent; how does it affect your creative process?

DC: I expect the things I make in any realm to be around for the long haul, so permanence doesn't affect me that way. Things like a material's susceptibility to UV damage, on the other hand, does.

EP: What was the commissioning process like? 

DC: Straightforward. The RMG contacted my dealer, Daniel Faria, and they said they wanted something for the front of the building to make it more prominent. Arthur Erickson designed the gallery. He was a friend — we discussed the building once, and he told me it was a bit on the minimal side.

EP: Can you speak a bit about the significance of the concentric circles in your work? They’ve appeared in your work on-and-off over the years, and they are again present in the installation at the RMG.

Jock Macdonald: Flood Tide (1957): Oil and Lucite 44 on masonite. Purchase 1970, Permanent Collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa.Jock Macdonald: Flood Tide (1957): Oil and Lucite 44 on masonite. Purchase 1970, Permanent Collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa.DC: It started back in 1999 and 2000 when I did furniture based on puck-drop circles on ice rinks and bonspiel rinks for a western Canadian company. I hung the tops up on my walls and the target motif became an in-house shorthand for  plotting out colour schemes for all sorts of projects. I like the simplicity and timelessness of the target, as well as its rich art history. People look at them and they get them.

EP: The piece at RMG draws some inspiration from the Painters Eleven and a particular portrait of them. Can you tell me a bit about that, and speak to your relationship with their work as well? 

DC: Yes, it starts with the famous photo of the group (though minus two of its members) taken in the late-1950s. If you look up the Painters Eleven, it's always the first image to come to the top. For each of the painters, I asked the gallery for an example of each painter's seminal work in the collection. From there, it was a matter of translating those eleven paintings into reduced target-like representations. It was funny when RMG curator Linda Jansma first saw the targets. She looked right at the element in the installation based on Hortense Gordon's target and said, "Good God, I know exactly who, and what painting, that belongs to." The works are pretty iconic.

In my twenties and thirties I really disliked the Painters Eleven. I saw them as grotesque and almost geologically locked in time. Then I saw a series of Harold Town pieces in Massey College, and they got under my skin. About five years later, I became obsessed with them. So, I was happy when the gallery called. To me the Painters Eleven works are like caraway're at a dinner table one night and you suddenly realize, "Hey, I'm eating caraway seeds and they're actually kind of great."

Elena PotterElena Potter is an art writer whose principal interests are photography and video. She holds a BFA in photography and has written for BlogTO, Prefix Photo and Magenta. She is also the editor of the blog for Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, where she is a member. A collection of her recent writings can be found here.