"Neo-Classical Pop: Poetic Nightmares" (2000):


(Essay © Jaleen Grove)


I have great expectations upon entering this show. This is a 24-year-old dynamo whose imagination keeps pace with virtuoso technique. Last year, when she sold all the work in a three-person show – upstaging the older and more experienced other artists – the local art critic Michael Scott of the Vancouver Sun called her (I must paraphrase here) the best and freshest talent to appear in Vancouver since Attila Richard Lukacs. I know her merely as the girl who had the studio down the aisle from me at school. I loved the work I saw a year ago, but I worry that maybe with the pressure of all the attention she'll screw it up, freeze in the headlights of oncoming success. I barge my way through the opening day crowd tense with empathetic anxiety.

It's a compost heap. It's a great, steaming, fertile, beautiful compost heap of combined art historical and contemporary images. Lisa Birke responds to the new-media overload of available historical imagery by synthesizing intricate frenzies of faces and places and attendant stuff in oil paint. In our discussion about her work she speaks about commodities, about desires for stuff. She speaks about Woman as a commodity, an elaborate display of consumerism and consumed herself, packaged in jewels, lace, and ultimately, the paint itself. These paintings are so full of art detritus they bring us into their worlds, instead of hanging in ours. Because of Lisa, painting is interesting again. She assures me that painting is still relevant in this age of moving, interactive pictures, and her creations prove it.

It's so hard to fully take any one of them in, in a short time. The reproductions I bring home with me reveal layers and objects I missed on the first, third, fifth looks. They are like snapshots of frozen panoramas of live webstreaming and channel surfing, a collage of decontextualised times and places, that somehow come together in a dreamlike way to recontextualise themselves with funny and startling juxtapositions. It would be a mess except for her ability to organize them. There are serious themes here: war and violence lurk in every work, shirking the light of day behind the joyful surfaces of spinning flowers, snowflakes, and textiles. Yet the more I look for meaning, morals, truth, and lessons, the more they evade me. The balance of positive and negative imagery is perfect – Lisa is pleased I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. It is her desire that these polar opposites become blurred in her art, because that is how she sees them in life – not pure. In her painting of Heaven, the residents are apparently enjoying a great booze-up. This particular picture has attracted some negativity, which pains her – she does not intend profanity, but reflection. Lisa says to me that Heaven must be overcrowded and boring – what else would you do, but have a party? If there is any message here at all, it is "Be careful what you wish for. Perfection – utopia – is not possible. And neither is its opposite."

Her pictures are littered with bucolic pastorals – historical ones, fantastical ones – but like Heironymous Bosch she pollutes each Eden with some sneaking monstrous entity. "While the Rest of the World Went Crazy, They Just Kissed the Daisies" is the title of one piece she completed in 2000. In it, a couple make love not war in a field of daisies under trees and blue sky. But in the background you suddenly notice a nuclear explosion on the horizon. And there's a mutant two-headed cow there, too. And a bow to the surrealist Dali with some melting clock references – is that the nuclear clock?

We talk about growing up in the Cold War years, with the looming threat of annihilation ever present. How did we live with it? I ask her about Gothic fairy tales. She affirms that she grew up on them (German is her family's language at home). Thinking of the most overt war picture in the show (it is the only painting that has not yet sold), in which there is a reference to the piles of Jews' shoes at Auschwitz , she surprises me by saying she is actually terribly uncomfortable with images of violence. Lisa surmises that perhaps depicting violence and then balancing it with happy images is a way of coming to terms with horror. The result is often black humour. "Mary Poppins Wasn't Poppin', she was Droppin'" is the title of a seemingly playful one with a shower of umbrella'd humans in it. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, in which the protagonist paints a similar image as a result of repressed memories of violent persecution at the hands of childhood peers. Lisa thinks she read it, but she cannot remember the scene. She tells me that the falling woman, painted multiple times like an animation sequence, ages from young to old between sky and ground.

The aging woman embodies the death of beauty, a nod to the transitory nature of time and reality. The same theme is evident in the use of the Vanitas still lifes that mingle in and out of the works. That oblivious couple in the daisies has the lunch from Manet's "Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe" within their outlines. Death is quietly there in them all, symbolised by the flowers that wilt and commemorate everywhere. At the same time the same flowers stand for the feminine; the traditionally vulnerable and decorative position women held in European society. The artist tells me she is thinking about how painting has been dominated by male genius talent, made a masculine art. She is determined to carve out her share. She shows the death of the woman-flowers while celebrating her own freedom to paint how and what she likes. In her inverted "Judgement of Paris", Paris becomes the object of judgement by the three women, who represent various traditional female marital roles, and who critically eye up his penis size.

Her skill is stretched to the limit in the execution of this body of work – most pieces show strain in one or two little patches, where the paint doesn't lie quite as well as it does in other parts. I think it mostly is to her benefit that she doesn't quite repaint the Old Masterpieces perfectly. I like the smartassness of their failure to be forgeries – it reminds us not to take any of it too seriously. In this respect she uses art history in the same subversive manner as Attila Richard Lukacs. Yet the glazy classical bits are still convincing enough to be believable in representing a technique now almost vanished. And just when you begin to believe in them, those Old-Master salon-licks are subverted by her own cartoony, goofy linear scrawls. They confound the old-style perspective systems and create flat spaces that contain other scenes, a time/space collapse that makes a world of her own. She says she loves the grand, melodramatic history paintings of yore, but her works seem to lampoon the values of past eras while they pay homage.

"Because of all the Junk, the Medusa Raft Sank" is the title of her take on Gericault's historic 1815 "Raft of the Medusa". I can't shake the feeling that the junk is not just the motley batch of goods and ephemera on hers, but also the histrionic emotional and cultural load the original represents. "Two Hundred Gumballs, Two Fine Ladies, Their Dog, A Purple Faced Ludwig, a Wack of Nice Lace, Forty-eight Oranges, Ten Little Indians, and a Nude with a Cow Descending a Staircase" makes light of the sacred cow of modernism in an interpretation of Duchamps' "Nude Descending a Staircase". The anachronistic figures carry themselves on a flat ground with pomp and dignity hilariously at odds with the bouncing gumballs that threaten to make them slip, complete with directional arrows. There is a death of painting going on – the death of the traditional sanctity and self-important ostentation of past centuries that some other contemporary painting practise struggles to continue to uphold. Lisa tells me how in school at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design she would say little in critiques, feeling highly skeptical about the wordy and stretched discourse around her. Not that she thinks her paintings unimportant – it brings her the greatest pleasure to see people smile at them, or to have children make "I spy" games out of them.

In the end, what do we take away with us when we leave the pictures? It seems these works are best understood as triggers for personal reflection. The historical figures float through their environments oblivious to the disasters going on around them. Do we? I ask Lisa if we learn from history. She thinks this question is funny. The answer seems to be "Maybe. It's up to the individual." In the face of too much information, and ready access to history, we don't have time for consideration. In this milieu, the static image, the old-tech oil painting, that allows time for eternal contemplation, is perhaps more necessary than ever.

all content © Lisa Birke 2015