"Canadiana: and all places in between" (2004-05):


(Essay © Jennifer Fabris)


Intricately woven images are pieced together and bring form through chaos in the works of Lisa Birke. As a cultural anthropologist she places herself deep within her culture and finds herself surrounded by the fragments of pop culture, stereotypes and kitsch. In her role as an observer she questions traditional representations, and looks to the world for her inspiration, which she sees balanced on a thread that might break at any time. Her imagination rapidly layers her observations with which she creates complex paintings that are rich with social critique.

Described as beautiful, humorous, bold, daring and even quirky, Birke’s paintings offer an honest and playful critique of our contemporary culture. As a student in Vancouver, British Columbia, where photo-conceptualism continues to have a strong presence, Birke found herself having to prove that painting is an effective medium for critique in contemporary art making. Since her graduation from Emily Carr Institute in 1998, her work has steadily built upon itself forming an impressive oeuvre for a young artist. She works in a consistent and thoughtful manner, proving that painting can hold its own in the Vancouver art scene.

In speaking about her work, Birke openly discusses her reluctance towards technology when formulating her ideas. She prefers a sketchbook and collage or plein air painting to formulate her ideas. She is overwhelmed by the vast amount of information which is available through computers – the ability to layer windows and ideas in a seemingly never-ending cycle is overpowering. Admittedly, however, as a viewer we often have the same sense of being overpowered when walking into one of her shows. Birke's paintings function as a massive collage of ideas, each delicately layered in oil paint. We must be patient and spend the time to discover her humour, the beauty and her critique.

Canadiana: And all Places in Between (2006) celebrates Birke’s most recent works shown at both the Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver and Toronto. With this show she brings awareness to the complexity of Canadian national pride and urges us to question and explore the many stereotypes and symbols, both contemporary and historical that make up our present day Canada. It is these notions of historical and contemporary Canadian stereotypes that bring out our Canadian pride, nostalgia and recognition. These works are both quintessentially Birke and Canadian – full of irony and a sense of humour, yet disquieting as they force us to question our assumptions and associations.

Having immigrated to Canada in 1982 at the age of six, Birke’s first memory of Canada is "a huge pink blob on one of those large blackboard scroll-down maps." She was in kindergarten and her teacher was showing her class where she was moving. Birke "remembers a sense of relief and pride that my new country was pink and also much bigger than the one all of my friends were staying behind in." Growing up in Canada, however, she initially disassociated herself with her German heritage and embraced all things Canadian. Losing site of this excitement as she grew up, Birke decided that she wanted to re-examine Canada through new eyes.

In order to discover these new eyes, Birke set out in the footsteps of Canada’s great seven landscape artists to travel across Canada with her easel, paints, and her Mom. To date, her travels have taken her through BC, Alberta and the Yukon Territory. The plein air paintings, sketches, photographs, postcards and just about anything else she could get her hands on all influenced her current series of paintings. A true collector, Birke recounts how she went into every museum she could and looked through archives, made photocopies and picked up all of the travel brochures.

The Great Canadian Beaver Rally (2005), places the beaver, the national animal of Canada at the centre of attention. At first glance it seems to be a simple celebration of the beaver, with beavers smiling and waving Canadian flags with pride as they dance around the Maypole. Canadian nickels are placed throughout the painting, further idolizing this animal. Upon closer examination, however, we see a young, bare-chested woman standing at the centre of the painting with the Maypole – perhaps she is the Queen of May? It was afterall during May Day celebrations that this was the most coveted role to be awarded and one that many women competed for. Instead of being a simple celebration of the beaver, Great Canadian Beaver Rally turns into a feminist critique regarding the role of women in society. And then, at once you realize that the beavers are flying from the ribbons of the Maypole and there is recognition of the play on words – for the Great Canadian Beaver Rally is full of playful sexual innuendo.

Next to the beaver, the Mountie is the ultimate in Canadian icons. Great Canadian Cloned Mounted Army of 2050 (2005), shows an army of Mounties being developed from a petri dish. Without enough room to hold them all, they spill over into the canvas and find themselves piled on top of each other with arms and legs sticking out all over. Each Mountie is given the same deadpan expression as they are locked together and take over the frame of the painting. This is an army of Mounties, not to be separated from one another. It is disconcerting to see this work in a time when the Canadian army is being stretched thin in peacekeeping missions overseas. Birke continues to question notions of a dystopic future as she did in her series Clones, Hybrids & Techno-Beasts.

In her 2004 show Clones, Hybrids & Techno-Beasts, Birke was concerned with the issues surrounding human intervention, manipulation and cloning. Questioning our desire to move towards a future where cloning and manipulation may be a natural occurrence, Birke created disturbing techno-beasts and cluttered still lifes of hybrids and clones. Each painting expressed her concern with our engineered future. The Great Canadian Cloned Mounted Army of 2050, takes this a step further as Birke places cloning in the hands of the military and our governed future.

Birke’s other works in her recent show layer Canadiana and critique with how we commercialize our country. Canada as ‘the great outdoors’ is a romantic image, which is easily marketed to other countries as an exotic travel destination. Here you can experience the wilderness with the comforts of a first-world nation. Birke paints a line-up of RV’s and titles it Great Canadian Wilderness Stampede (2005). Or, we are given a beer-drinking moose in Great Canadian Siamese Moose Trophy (2005) – apparently where the moose had one too many Moosehead beers and pack of smokes sits on a ledge jutting out from the edge of the painting.

For Birke, there is no break between the chaos she sees in the world and the stream of consciousness in which she paints and creates. Her ideas are fed by her energy. The form of chaos she explores exists both outside of and inside her world. She works to reflect how the brain functions – showing us multiple visual images which lead to a jumble of ideas and the rapid switching of gears. Her ideas are related and are at the same time disconnected and she expects you to work to bring them together into formation.

Birke uses the piles of information she collects and sees to layer and give the viewer a veritable cornucopia of visual stimulation. Similar to the number of images we are bombarded with on a daily basis, initially her works feel like there is too much coming at you. Birke forces us to be patient and sift through her constructed chaos to develop our own interpretation of her stories.

Hers is a hybridized, Disney-fied world of social constructs. She brings forth awareness of current issues of commodification and genetic cloning to issues of national pride and commercialization. Birke pushes each of her ideas into the realm of the surreal, while maintaining a delicate balance of keeping these ideas present in our reality. For they must remain present, as they would otherwise lose their power to provoke thought. It is through her sense of humour that Birke is able to struggle with some very real and discomforting issues. Each of these issues opens up opportunity to discuss our own common sense of uncertainty about our global future.

all content © Lisa Birke 2015