'Roy Kiyooka had small feet and small hips and a big forehead and a few chin hairs and two missing fingertips," wrote the Vancouver poet George Bowering evocatively after the death of his poet friend in 1994. He was trying to account for the cherished comrade he had lost. "His body was so small," Bowering wrote, "it could have been fitted inside his enormous laugh."
Since Kiyooka's death, many have tried to account for Kiyooka, to measure the meaning of his production, first as a modernist abstract painter from the prairies (he conscripted Barnett Newman to lead the Emma Lake workshop in 1959, ushering in a sea change in his own painting) and later -- after 1961 -- as a Vancouver painter who was also, and increasingly, a poet and maker of multimedia works: photographs, collages, sound works, slide shows, films and videos.
Since 1996, Kiyooka's estate has been represented by the dealer Catriona Jeffries in Vancouver, and she has mounted several revealing exhibitions of his works, many of which were not exhibited during his lifetime. Then, in 1999, a conference was held in Vancouver in which Kiyooka's friends and colleagues from across the country converged to unpack his legacy. Michael Ondaatje, Sarah Sheard, Joy Kogawa, John O'Brian, Roy Miki and, of course, Bowering were among the participants.
The current touring exhibition, Roy Kiyooka: Accidental Tourist, in its final days at the Doris McCarthy Gallery in Scarborough, Ont., takes yet another look at the man, this time focusing on his experimental mixed media works made after 1960, and drawing out the theme of Kiyooka as a traveller between cultures.
During Kiyooka's teen years in the Second World War, he and his family were placed in a Japanese internment camp in Opal, Alta., and one senses in his work a constant interrogation of cultural identity and belonging. Kiyooka's British Columbia looks like Japan (he took a number of trips there that he captured on film), and his Japan looks like British Columbia. Always, the camera wanders out to the horizon line, and the liquid space between worlds.
In his art, Kiyooka delivers a palpable sense of place, a rebuttal, begun in middle age, to the universalist claims of abstraction and high modernism. His art, from the early sixties onward, would be about his friends (we see them naked on the rocks by the ocean, or fishing in the waters off Long Beach), and it would be about his very specific physical environment on the coast. He would now be passionately particular, giving us the distinctive fog horn booming dark and low in his 60-minute audio work Vancouver Soundscape, the glowing carnival rides of the multipanelled photo-work Untitled (P.N.E.) (1978), and the improvised codfish mask mounted on a tree trunk (and capped with an eagle feather) in his sequenced slide projection work Hornby Island.
Presaging the work of such Vancouver photo-conceptualists as Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Roy Arden, Kiyooka also made the working life of the city his subject. In Back Alley, he shows various people (amateur mechanics, homemakers etc.) at work under his discreet surveillance, intercut with precisely composed still shots of the small, crowded-together houses in his neighbourhood -- a visual collage of painted wood siding, wooden telephone poles, sloping roofs, fire escapes, windows and doors.
In Save on Meats (1980), another slide projection, he documents the comings and goings of a grocery store in Vancouver's east end: the customers, the signage (Turkey Hindquarters, 59 cents), the brightly lit interior and the sidewalk outside with its cast of local characters. In attending to the social fabric of the city in the way that he did, Kiyooka paved the way for the distinctive photographic practice that still defines that city's art scene, a tradition carried forward, now, by younger artists, such as Tim Lee, Howard Ursuliak and Chris Gergley.
Another of Kiyooka's projection works, Misturo's Graveyard and the Sea of Japan (1973), recounts a pilgrimage back to Japan, revealing the workings of a rice farm and the shore life of a small nearby fishing village, the happy gathering of friends around food and tea drinking, and the miraculous poise of a grasshopper balancing on a bamboo pole -- the kind of moments one finds captured, similarly, in his poetry.
Kiyooka's choice of the slide show medium is revealing, borrowing from the now less-common custom of showing slides to family and friends on return from a trip. The format itself, thus, declares him a traveller and explorer, constantly carrying with him news from one place to another, and always in between.
Roy Kiyooka; Accidental Tourist continues at Doris McCarthy Gallery to Sunday (416-287-7007).