Douglas Coupland and The Penguins

If there's one guy out there who knows the difference between art and design it's Douglas Coupland. Vancouver's favourite zeitgeistmeister is famous for his novels and coffee table books but he is also a prolific visual artist (sculpture, installation, collage, etc.) and was trained as a graphic designer. His new exhibition of work, called The Penguins, opened yesterday at the Monte Clark Gallery in the Distillery District and once again he has glued his interest in graphic design to his art practice.

Each piece in The Penguins consists of a cover from a Penguin edition novel glued onto a canvas with words spelled in various sized letters. Duct tape, flower stickers or masking tape also sometimes accompany the letters. All of it is encased in a clear varnish that covers the entire front of the canvas and gives each piece a nice gloss (and, I imagine, holds everything down securely). Each canvas is framed in a white shadow box frame. Each piece is the same size but they have been hung so that the whole collection works as an installation piece.

In some cases the matching of book with word seems simplistic; "Animals" splashed over a cover for Lord of the Flies seems a bit obvious, but then, it's also the only bright yellow cover on the wall and hangs apart from the rest.

Individual pieces like "Clash" (Wuthering Heights) or "Solitude" (Self) remind me of Harmony Korine's attempt to write a novel in one word (the result was a page in his book "A Crack-Up at the Race Riots" with just the word "Hepburn" on it). It's as though Coupland is attempting to summarize an entire novel, and a classic novel at that, with a single dismissive utterance. You don't have to read it, "Clash" says it all. But I don't think that's what he's going for.

But there are other pieces in The Penguins that are a little more puzzling. Song titles from New Wave bands pop up within the collection. "Remain in Light", "Life During Wartime", "Love Will Tear Us Apart" ("Apart" appearing over another copy of Wuthering Heights).


The press release for this show states that the Penguin editions of these books were guaranteed best sellers. That by selling the books at a low price at newspaper stands they brought literature and enlightenment to the masses. By pairing these books with the likes of Talking Heads and Joy Division is Coupland saying these bands were serving the same purpose? Perhaps in thirty years we can expect a video art piece featuring Simpsons episodes edited to act out scenes from Generation X.

Douglas Coupland - The Penguins run from July 26 to September 16th at Monte Clark Gallery in the Distillery District.
Photo of Douglas Coupland by Jason Michael.

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