Phantoms in the Front Yard: Over the Counter Culture

The Over the Counter Culture (OCC for short) exhibition by Phantoms in the Front Yard, a Vancouver based figurative artist collective is on exhibit at the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art in North Vancouver and runs from October 1 – December 18, 2015.  Featured artists are Michael Abraham, Jeremiah Birnbaum, Jay Senetchko, Paul Morstad, Bruce Pashak, Jonathan Sutton, and Caroline Weaver, and guest artist James Knight. The works are featured in the Mezzanine and Process Galleries.

The Fix © Michael Abraham
The Fix © Michael Abraham

The OCC exhibition is featured alongside the At What Cost? – Optimists, Pessimists, Nearby and Far Away exhibition from the Artists for Kids Teaching Collection. The OCC work takes on the form of very brightly coloured posters, immediately attracting the viewer’s eye. I found the images fun to look at, but became aware of the deeper message: the place of drugs, natural or synthetic, legal or illegal and their place and purpose, use and abuse in today’s society. Some of the work references propaganda posters, advertising materials, sculptures, and historical painting modes.

© Bruce Pashak
© Bruce Pashak

Bruce Pashak is a multidisciplinary conceptual artist. He specializes in the construction and dissemination of perceptions. His bio on the Phantoms in the Front Yard website states:

The viewer is meant to be engaged by the normative values of his reference material and then left to their own devices. The images become an experience, a slippery personal tour through existentialism where the meaningful is unhinged and the meaningless finds its private value.

© Caroline Weaver
© Caroline Weaver

Weaver’s work was inspired by moonshine drugs and over the counter legal substances. It focuses on the lure of these new escapist drugs, the romance that forms at the beginning of an addiction, the subsequent highs and lows and inevitable downward spiral.

I was particularly drawn to Michael Abraham’s work (see above) because of his playful tongue in cheek method of addressing a serious subject. He uses bright primary colours, his paintings almost border on caricatures with some of the subjects sporting enlarged heads or very long arms on short bodies, lending his images a rather comical feel to them. One definitely comes away with a good chuckle after viewing them.

I would have preferred to see the gallery filled with more of the OCC images, rather than share space with the At What Cost? exhibition as they ran into each other. There was no defining stop/start for each exhibit and that did confuse me slightly. The one moment I was viewing a painting of someone smoking weed, the next I was looking at an Edward Burtynsky photo of car tyres which fell under the Pessimists section (I have previously reviewed this in a review during the TAOP course).

The image that intrigued me the most in the At What Cost? exhibition was Rodney Graham’s photography of the Napoleon Tree, 2003. It is a photograph of a tree that Napoleon was supposed to have lunched under. What makes it interesting is that Graham has inverted the image so that the tree is upside down. This forces us to examine the tree in detail, paying more attention to the curve and strength of its branches and delicate shape of its leaves. The tree featured upside down reminds me of the root system that is unseen underground, probably delving as deep into the ground as the tree is high. Graham has done a series of upside down trees and in an excerpt of an interview with Anthony Spiria from Whitechapel Art Gallery featured on the Vancouver Art Gallery website, he states:

“You don’t have to delve very deeply into modern physics to realize that the scientific view holds that the world is really not as it appears. Before the brain rights it, the eye sees a tree upside down in the same way it appears on the glass back of the large format field camera I use. I chose the tree as an emblematic image because it is often used in diagrams in popular scientific books and because it was used in Saussure’s book on linguistics to show the arbitrary relation between the so-called signifier and the signified. I was also using a kind of readymade strategy based on the disputable assumption that a photograph is not art but an upside down photo is.”

Reference List

Graham, Rodney. Oak Tree, Red Bluff, #8, 1993/2005 [online] Vancouver Art Gallery. Available from: [Accessed 27 October, 2015]

Pashak, Bruce. Bio [online] Phantoms in the Front Yard. Available from: [Accessed 27 October, 2015]


Abraham, Michael [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October, 2015]

Phantoms in the Front Yard [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October, 2015]


2 thoughts on “Phantoms in the Front Yard: Over the Counter Culture”

  1. The upside-down tree looked so much like a reflection that I spent quite a while trying to figure it out! I like the idea. So many Cultures have this idea of the ‘Tree of Life’. I like Abrahams work as well, much prefer it to Damien Hirst and his ‘Medicine Cabinet’.


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