WANDA KOOP RETROSPECTIVE
[First published on the Galleries West website in 2010.]
Wanda Koop is an important Winnipeg artist who, along with a few others in the late-1970s and early 1980s, decided to become an entrepreneur. From the beginning she has promoted herself as a serious artist through mailed proposals, a wide travel schedule, personal meetings with the heads of galleries, and a no-nonsense attitude to business that has always argued for the value of her art. You will note that very few neo-avant garde Canadian artists aside from General Idea, who were facetious about it, took business seriously thirty years ago, no doubt because of the mix of hippie hopelessness and pseudo-Marxism that saturated the scene way back then. Meanwhile, Koop's prosperous survival has inspired a generation or two of risk-taking Winnipeg artists to bet on their own success.
Winnipeg does not have a set of styles that migrate down the generations, and Koop has no imitators. What is passed down is a simple work ethic that, combined with cheap space, keeps Winnipeggers in contention. There is a hankering for traditional media here that makes commercial success easier, but otherwise it's just, following elder examples, work, work, work for Winnipeg art bees.
Koop's art is the deserving subject of two Autumn shows here, a major traveling retrospective at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, memorably closed down by the police opening night because of overcrowding, making her the envy of all artists, and a tighter, smaller show at Mayberry Fine Art, her local dealer.
There is not enough space here to address the years of work sampled in these exhibitions, nor room for details about the innumerable subjects Koop has taken up since the beginning of her career such as hockey players, airplanes, cherries, gorillas, scopes, and babies, to name some.
My favorite Wanda Koop paintings are her imaginary acrylic landscapes, examples of which appear in both the WAG and the Mayberry shows. Her watery, aerial views of futuristic cities include foggily defined buildings that shimmer amidst floodwaters and lakes. She perches little urban outcroppings on stream-form spits of land in these works. The best are mid-sized things, maybe 3 or 4 feet high, likely the optimum size to match the drying time of the acrylic water-based medium's layers with the paint application time perfectly. Technically, these are complex paintings, and their layering technique is not easily copied.
The surfaces of these landscapes are extremely delicate. I have long thought owners should immediately put them under plexi. Many viewers might not know how subtle these surfaces are, but once you do, it turns looking closely at them into an experience a little like watching the last champagne flute being carefully put on the top of a pyramid of glasses. Sensations of fragility and luminescence dominate my viewing of these extraordinary things.
Koop's cities-on-the-prairies paintings would be clean, bright visions of a Modernist future if they did not also allude to floods, those slow, creeping natural disasters that prairie people stare down every spring. In Koop's futuristic scenes, the floods are deliberate irritants, at least to prairie folk, like the insects that crawl over fruit in Dutch still life paintings. Maybe this is their non-verbal massage: look forward to more floods because of climate change, but don't despair, we'll have the technology to deal with it. As you might guess, I am making the case here for Koop as a Modernist painter, an artist who believes in the future.
Nobody who uses colour with the exuberance and joy of a Wanda Koop can be accused of being dystopian, even if some statements put out on her behalf emphasize dark things like the dangers of surveillance culture and ecological disaster. As a person and as an artist, Koop is incapable of being pessimistic, a fact that is hardly contradicted by the occasional menacing masked hockey head, cross-haired riflescope or, in many paintings, single black existentialist figure standing before what could be depictions of gigantic paintings or cinema screens.
The WAG show included 16 dioramas in miniature made by Koop's partner Stephen Hunter. These delightful little things address Koop's gigantism by reversing the scale relations that make viewers Lilliputian just one room over. The models are art-about-art within a room crammed floor to ceiling with Koop works of all sizes. Koop and her WAG curators must have wanted to overwhelm viewers.
Mayberry Fine Art's Koop installation is a much more sedate affair. If the WAG provides the stadium version of Koop, Mayberry gives us a private, more domestic view, one that includes a beautiful limited-edition book of canvas print reproductions of fanciful buildings called "Expovilion," and much else. A marker of the difference between the two installations is the inclusion of a 1980s masked hockey player painting at Mayberry. In the WAG's large entrance hall, similar acrylic on plywood paintings seem half the size as the Mayberry piece.
Mayberry is an Edwardian townhouse gallery that might remind art travellers of an uptown New York gallery like Richard L. Feigen & Co. It sells both historical and contemporary works, and their contemporary roster includes well-known local names such as Koop, Joe Fafard, Allen Sapp, Daphne Odjig, Chris Dorosz, Bruce Monk and Andrew Valko, along with more obscure but presumably saleable artists.
The contrast between the WAG and Mayberry shows highlights Koop as a telling example of both the heights and limits of stardom in contemporary Canadian art. The critical acclaim has always been there for her, with some naysayers. We are used to solid critical reputations in our senior contemporary artists, but Koop's commercial success is so unusual that it is always, like struck lightning, noted. The scale of many of her works, which fit comfortably in a major museum space but must be shoe-horned into the commercial gallery, is a telling reminder that Koop's ambition is still rare in Canadian art, putting the wider Canadian scene, at least as I see it, roughly where American art was in 1949: will it be ever thus?