While most art museums allow you come and go as you wish, wandering the galleries at you own pace, this is not the case at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver. And that is a good thing.
It is just one of ways the Rennie Museum dares to be different.
First off, the Rennie Museum isn’t a public art museum. It’s a private museum with rotating exhibitions from the extensive collection of international contemporary art of Vancouver art collector, Bob Rennie. Second, there is no curator of the exhibitions. Rather Rennie self-curates from his collection what pieces he wishes to exhibit. Thirdly, the museum is only open on Saturdays and only to those making a reservation for one of the day’s tours. And it’s also always free!
A bit elitist? Maybe? But, I love to explore off the beaten path places, which is the case for the Rennie given its unassuming location in Vancouver’s Chinatown - not exactly the place you would expect to find a contemporary art museum.
Spring 2019: Collected Works consists of four exhibitions featuring the works of four artists - Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie. The common theme is portraying the spirit of collecting in our everyday lives. There is also a secondary theme that speaks to the importance of objects to humans and how they often define a person.
In the main floor gallery, hang four small scale paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie that at first look like photographs because of their small size (25.7 x 33.3 cm)and life-like detail.
On the opposite wall, is a selection of photographs by American artist Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings, and which cleverly play off Grassie’s work, depicting art an art collector’s apartment and the same artworks in packing crates in a warehouse.
Personally, I related more to Lawler’s photos which seemed more intimate and voyeuristic compared to the rather mundane and esoteric Grassie paintings.
On the second floor are two other exhibition galleries and a video space. The most interesting exhibition to me was that of American photographer Catherine Opie who was allowed access to Elizabeth Taylor’s home shortly before her passing. The exhibition titled “700 Nimes Road (2010-2011)” (the title being Taylor’s home address) is an intimate portrait of Taylor’s life via the objects she collected and how she displayed them in her home. Each photo is a vignette of Taylor’s everyday life, from her collection of shoes and cat, to her make-up table full of brushes. Some reflect her glamorous life, but many are familiar things like photos of family and friends found in most homes. The twist being Taylor’s photos include people like Michael Jackson and one of the objects lying around is a letter from Paris Jackson. Opie’s photos are a reminder not only of the importance of objects in everyone’s lives, but also how these objects document what is important to us and to some extent who we are.
It was here I realized the value of our tour guide. A couple of Opie’s photographs of Taylor’s jewelry were very blurry, making me wonder why the artist kept these photos and why anyone would want to collect them. I expect most visitors would have shaken their heads when they saw them and thought “anyone could do that!” and moved on quickly.
However, our guide explained the works were intentionally out of focus as Opie wanted to convey that after a person dies, the memory of the person fades away; we lose focus and clarity of the them. How clever. I would never have figured that out. It was just one of the many insights our guide provided during the tour. It would have taken huge didactic panels to share all such insights.
In the second upper gallery was an exhibition of 22 photographs by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depicting the Athens home of the iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas, who had hoped one day it would become a museum. The huge home housed over 10,000 ancient and contemporary artworks. However, the Greek government rejected the offer of his villa and collection and when he died in 1987 the collection was plundered, looted and the villa vandalized.
Half of the Jones’ photos were taken in 1982 and half were taken in 2016 after Iolas had passed away and his home was in ruins. Jones’ photos successfully depict how Iolas lived an extraordinary life collecting and exhibiting the works of Duchamp, Warhol, Magritte, Ernst and sadly it all ended up in ruins. The exhibition also includes the 30-minute film “Fall into Ruin” (2017) which combines the photographs of Iolas’ home with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum, providing another layer of context of how art collections define time, place and person.
Art & Object
Also, in the large gallery with Jones’ photos is Louise Lawler’s huge black and white digital drawing titled “Pollock and Tureen” created in 2008. The top of the piece is a computer-generated tracing of shapes of the paint drops of a Jackson Pollock drip painting creating a network of flowing lines and shapes that is both playful and perplexing. At the bottom is an everyday tureen using the same technique which captures the shapes of light reflecting off the surface of the object. Together, it looks like an abstract still life - with the tureen sitting on a credenza with the Pollock painting on the wall behind. It is impressive not only in size and simplicity of concept, but how it juxtapositions art and object.
The piece exists as a digital file that can be printed on vinyl to any size for exhibition and then discarded at the end of the exhibition. In the Rennie Museum’s case the piece a humungous, I’d estimate it at 60’ by 30’.
Sharing the gallery space with Jones’ photos of Iola’s 20thcentury masterpieces and century old antiquities, Lawler’s work reminds us of how modern artifacts have become much more disposable than those of previous generations.
Importance of a tour guide
Throughout the tour, our guide used the art to illustrate how almost all humans over time have been collectors of something and that on some level, we curate our own lives with the objects that we surround with. Whether it is collections of high-priced art or something as simple as a collection of seashells. She often posed open ended questions like: What do these objects say about us? What kind of portrait do they construct of their owners? We were left to ponder.
Tour participants were asked to think about what happens to one’s objects when passes away. Are they preciously packaged and sent off to high value auctions as was the case with Elizabeth Taylor's jewels? Or, do they become victims of carelessness and vandalism as was the case with Villa Iolas. Or do they end up in thrift stores, garage sales and landfills?
Our tour guide, Fiorela Argueta who is currently finishing her BA in Art History at the University of British Columbia struck the right balance of enthusiasm and education. It was much better than reading dry didactic (and often too academic) information panels.
I was told the reason the Rennie Museum is by tour only is that Bob Rennie wants people to have a thoughtful experience with the art and not just the quick “glance and go” experience so typical of many visitors to art galleries and museums. I respect that.
Perhaps, “tour only” is something more galleries and museums should think about to create more value to their visitor experience. Maybe instead of having somber-looking security guards positioned in every gallery, educators could be hired to give small group tours every 15 or 30 minutes and therefore no need for security. Might commercial galleries benefit from at least offering to take visitors on a short say 5 minute, guided tour of the artworks rather than letting people aimlessly wander the gallery while they sit behind their desk?
Spring 2019: Collected Works runs until June 15, 2019. The Rennie Museum is located in the Wing Sang Building, 51 East Pender Street, Vancouver. Expect your tour to last about an hour with time at the end to further explore the exhibitions and video on your own.
Note: An edited version of this blog was published by Galleries West Magazine.
If you like this blog, you might like these links: