July 1, 2019

Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty – Canadian Art

Jayne Wilkinson
Summer 2019 Issue

One of few Canadian artists associated with the Pictures Generation in 1980s New York, Alexander is known for her use of appropriation to critique the conventions of the advertising industry. That’s where “Extreme Beauty,” her first careerspanning retrospective, begins, with a series depicting ’80s supermodel Christie Brinkley in cropped and enlarged images framed under yellow glass. Obsessive and voyeuristic, their overt manipulation still startles, raising questions around authorship and image ownership anew. Her use of highly reflective coloured glass (elsewhere it’s black for full mirrored effect) implicates viewers too, such that one’s own gaze becomes simultaneous with the model’s, two sets of eyes staring back from within the frame.

Consumerism is a clear reference point but conceptually the works demonstrate how surface reflections produce images with no depth. That’s critical. By expanding the boundaries of what constitutes a photograph— through sculpture, collage, Plexiglas, mirrors and murals—Alexander points out how advertising is vacant, even objectless. In our era of Instagram consumption, this continues to ring true: it’s about selling the idea of the image and the desire of looking, not the product itself.

Surprising, to me, was how much of the work manipulated surface effects to confront the artificiality of nature, and reveal our desire for smooth images of “natural beauty.” Forests and lakes get the same treatment as the supermodel or the showroom: reflective glass, high-gloss finish, lifestyle-marketing and product placement. Wall-size murals read like ads for national parks, reproductions of model condo suites look not-quite-right, modern interiors are furnished with fake wood panelling and boutique pets—all of it suggests that nature is something constructed, to be looked at from safe distance.

It’s a body of work perfectly suited for Vancouver, whose flowering trees and snow-topped mountains and sunset beaches are impossible not to see, reflected as they are in the abundant blue-green glass of the city’s mirrored modernism. Drawn to extremes of beauty, in nature or otherwise, we rarely seek truly unmediated experiences; Alexander pointed that out decades ago, and it’s a lesson that’s aged well.

Image Credit:

Heike’s Room, 2004
Ink-jet print on canvas
1.36 m x 2.18 m x 3 cm