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Art Review

Pretty Images of Gritty Vancouver Subjects

April 10, 1998|DAVID PAGEL

Roy Arden's big color photographs of Vancouver and its environs belong to a school of photography that can best be described as Designer Marxism. At Patrick Painter, Inc., 33 modestly priced prints made between 1992 and 1997 efficiently survey the style's goals and techniques. In Arden's images (as in those by Jeff Wall, Dan Graham and Allan Sekula), activism and academicism cancel each other out, leaving viewers with generally pretty pictures of generally ugly subjects.

Like the legions of documentary photographers to whose work these photos are indebted, Arden leaves the beaten path to try to find the truth of modern life. Alleys, basements and cul-de-sacs form the backdrop against which his realism unfolds.

One series of crisp Cibachromes depicts boarded-up houses. Another suite is made up of run-down apartments. Unemployed workers, industrial machinery, litter-filled lots, derelict downtowns and factory dumps round out the downside of Arden's oeuvre, in which gritty authenticity and rugged individualism are presented as things of the past.

The Vancouver-based artist's pictures oppose such robust ways of life to the soulessness of modern economies based on instant gratification and disposable products. Driving home the point that capitalism squelches individuality as it obliterates local histories is a photo of a storefront-display of cheap plastic stools and another depicting a prefabricated house.

Not surprisingly, the upside of Arden's art resides in the skilled labor and technical prowess that go into the production of his masterfully crafted photographs, each of which is limited to an edition of three. Exquisitely printed and handsomely framed, these pieces of well-made merchandise, which sometimes measure up to 6-by-7-feet, set themselves in opposition to the evils of the marketplace, which they so carefully depict.

Such stand-apart elitism, which is grounded in the idea that art's job is to criticize society, has long been the province of many academic Marxists. All that's new in Arden's illustrative photographs is their size, clarity and color saturation--formal elements that emphasize style over substance.

What these prints reveal is that Marxism is a modern product like any other--as subject to style changes and design refinements as houses and plastic stools are. Despite Arden's best intentions, his photographs fill a market niche made up of professors, theoreticians and institutions that publicly display contemporary art. This leaves general viewers with little room to maneuver.

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* Patrick Painter, Inc., Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through April 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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