Published in a catalogue for the exhibition of Victor John Penner's photographs, District* based on a true story at the West Vancouver Museum, Mar 29 – May 6, 2017
Victor John Penner’s photographs of urban and suburban spaces, all marked by human interaction, create a sense of unease. Past series documented abandoned grow-op houses and empty gymnasiums. Penner's new series of works, District* (based on a true story), creates a mise-en-scène of West Vancouver, offering a counter-narrative to landscape/nature based art through photographs of seemingly discordant scenes.Through the new series, Penner reflects on formative aspects of how his early influences have informed his practice.
“I cannot stroll around the outskirts of my neighborhood in the solitude of night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details”
-- Jorge Luis Borges
Much of adolescent memories are made in darkness, or outside of view. The spaces in which you have, at this self-discovering age, the most agency are the night and your room. The night being an illicit escape, the room being a hermetic fortress. Adolescence is remembered as a decorated incubator, a lone walk. Anyone who has grown up in the suburbs has some recollection of this, and the District of West Vancouver has its own beautifully specific mysteries. The presence of a wilderness presses in, and expands the city space towards the north and the west with pockets of forest, ocean, and mountains. The architecture and culture responds in kind, exerting control in some areas, and embracing its lack in others.
These images that Victor John Penner has constructed to colour an environment of influence are of spaces outside the regular flows of the city. They are protected back eddies housing elements that resist a movement through time. They depict a darkness that houses an interstitial time: the time of night, of hibernation, of incubation, a womb-like, adolescent time, a time that features the bizarre. The photographs take the shape of chrysalises, metamorphic, surrounding that which defies consequence and causality and in which a structure of meaning liquefies, gathers potentiality, and emerges with new signifiers.
A photograph itself is adolescent. It ties a present moment to a past one. A photograph contains the existence of both, simultaneously. Amphibian, it exists in the past as a vestige, and the present as an object. These scenes operate structurally in the same manner as the photograph. Their content is equally outside of time.
I use the metaphor of the adolescent broadly within this work, to speak about its intention, its content, and its structure. The artist utilizes the persona of an adolescent as a critical eye. The artist, the work itself is not adolescent as such. I would like to use the impressionable years between childhood and adulthood as a method of looking at the development of an identity of place, as a character that has a particular way of interacting with their surroundings, and as a medium that, for all its accomplishments in this particular region, seems poised on the verge of adulthood internationally and historically. I argue that this position is a vital one, full of tumultuous love affairs, unrepentant rebellion, a deep affinity and sensitivity to beauty, and an acute awareness of death.
Jeff Wall describes photography in his essay “Marks of Indifference,” as being unable to “participate in the adventure it might be said to have suggested in the first place.” This remark is in reference to the annihilation of depiction in art over the course of the modern era. However, the language he uses implies a further anthropomorphization of photography into a character full of its own existential angst, one that may be caught pouting, or damaging public property. Photography becomes someone who is complaining of exclusion by claiming ownership over the activity from which they are being excluded. Like a teenager, this character of photography is able to criticize the mechanics of its existence while having remarkably little control over its resolution.
Many of the works included in District depict some kind of borderland, a discrete wildness that leaks out of its walls. Some, like Breach, are quite literal, others less so. Redacted and In Chambers echo the literal reference with their curving formal compositions, but carry more subtle narratives of control within the design of their spaces. In these images, control is framed as desperate and impractical; this attitude seems to be on the side of the wildness, its inclusion is hopeful.
The images of the archive speak of this same spillage, but of their objects’ significance. The mask of Pierre Trudeau’s implication in a bank robbery constitutes a reclamation of a celebrity persona for criminal means, and our current prime minister recontextualizes his father’s image yet again. BC Binning’s small yet precise radio, sits unheard on a shelf. The irony of space used to store No Parking signs speaks for itself. Cry wolf hints at a similar history of reinscribed meaning, one which has ravaged the body of the beast to which it has been assigned. The meanings are breathing and stretching inside their signifiers, growing stories too big for their given names. If these objects have lifespans, have they reached adulthood yet?
These complex signifiers that deny, defy, trouble or mutate their direct signification exist in the landscape as well as the archive. Penner photographs interior and exterior spaces that are on the edge of those with proper names, and resist them with their narrative ambivalence; these are places where the light bleeds into the forest, or out of the interior. Markedly, these spaces are empty of figures. They imply an eerie outsider, perhaps the artist, perhaps the artist as teenager. A shadow figure that, like the meanings in the photographs, doesn’t quite fit in, and exceeds the space the district has allotted for it. More so than language, a landscape, an era, a person resists these brittle, stark qualifications.
The works are full of names which are contested by their current circumstances. Penner is playing with culture as well as language here; the playful puns in the titles reference art history, the narratives within the municipality, and his own personal stories as well. They often have an exchange with the text in the photographs themselves. The character of the adolescent sees the emptiness of these unquestioned municipal emblems, but doesn’t accuse emptiness of a negative quality. Adolescence points out its absurdity, its radical meaninglessness, and celebrates it.
Familiarity functions in these works as a weapon, like sarcasm. Penner has an incisive ability to recognize and isolate that difference, and claim it as not negative, but absurd. As if it was previously used on the artist himself, these pieces are a reckoning of difference. The familiarity of these spaces, their interaction with a cultural nostalgia, allows the viewer to insert their own personal histories. As yet more meanings enter the works, the expanded, stretched, abraded membranes of their signifiers grow thin. The friction of this difference within the sign, the stretched and crowded meanings, evinces with it an acute pain. The adolescent, oft-criticized for self-pity, has in its capacity a raw sensitivity for empathy. Tender from this abrasion, everything is simultaneously excruciatingly beautiful and painfully dark.
Rather than quash this pain, the adolescent revels in its phenomenological feel, explodes with its jouissance, ridicules it in the most humble and uproarious of ways, is silenced by its small interior pitfalls, eats its words under its beauty. These photographs use adolescent strategies of sabotage: springing leaks, letting in contaminants, packs of feral creatures, countercultures, exploiting weaknesses, constructing double entendres, tagging the walls with pseudonyms.
These strategies in the works are given a gravity of maturity by Victor John Penner that the adolescent is often not allowed. They recommend that the viewer sit comfortably within the inbetween spaces they encounter, to view the differences in light and space, in language and landscape, that they may not have considered since their own pubescent transition. He recommends the position of the adolescent as a critical yet generative one, not to be derided as nostalgic or sentimental, but one which may be necessary to inhabit in order to grow. The adolescent’s ability to inhabit both the spaces of childhood and adulthood, its ability to expand to contain multiple narratives, to be flexible between them, and to be full of both self and other, makes it a character of empathy, transition, and metamorphosis. Far from being dismissed as juvenile and frivolous, this is a character to which a community can aspire.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "A New Refutation of Time." Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Esther Allen and Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. 323. Print.
Wall, Jeff. "Marks of Indifference." Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975. By Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995. 260. Print.