Velvet Soapbox couches criticism in lushly-rendered paintings

Art | by Gregory Beatty

David Dreher: Velvet Soapbox
Art Gallery of Regina
Until June 26

While perhaps a bit archaic, most people probably know what the term “soapbox” means. It dates back to the 19th century, and describes the idea of a person climbing on a wooden crate in a public space to make an impromptu speech. When so engaged, with whatever level of fervour and lucidity they could muster, they were said to be on their soapbox.

That accounts for the second word in the title of Alberta painter David Dreher’s latest exhibition. “Velvet” has a political dimension too. Typically, it applies to some dramatic geopolitical rupture, but where force isn’t the major change agent. The change still occurs, as with Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution against the Soviet Union in 1989, it’s just not accompanied by a lot of bloodshed.

Taken together, “Velvet Soapbox” is a fair summation by curator Holly Fay of Dreher’s work here. Chock-full of images culled from Internet searches, the collage-style paintings are politically loaded — so, to that extent, Dreher is on his soapbox.

As for whether he delivers his message in a “velvet” way, I suppose that’s for individual viewers to judge. For my part, I think sometimes the “velvet” is pretty thin. “Suicide Bomber Jesus” is probably the most provocative work. That’s not its official title, it’s actually “Bread & Wine with Leonard Cohen”. But it consists of a kitschy Jesus statue with his right hand raised in a benediction, and a bundle of dynamite with a timer strapped to his chest, so…

It’s far from the only religious image in the show either. In another painting, “Part of this Pernicious Breakfast”, Dreher depicts a freckled-faced boy, c. 1950s and dressed up for Sunday school, about to devour with his spoon, perhaps in a single bite, a stately bishop — robe, mitre, crosier and all.

In an accompanying essay, Ross Melanson describes Dreher’s work in Velvet Soapbox as “actual and personal”. He also talks about him coming to grips with his past, and exploring “the spiritual and existential experiences and crises which have marked and guided his life”.

I’m not sure what role Christianity played in Dreher’s upbringing, but he’s obviously got some unresolved issues. Religion isn’t the only topic he addresses from his “soapbox” though.

Advertising and the broader reality of consumer culture is another concern. Again, Dreher draws on personal experience. According to Melanson, he has a diploma in Visual Communication from Alberta College of Art and Design, and has training in graphic design, illustration and advertising.

You probably have to be 55 older to have firsthand experience with most of the images Dreher has pulled from the Internet. Like the bishop-eating boy, they date from the early Baby Boom era when mass marketing was in its infancy and advertising campaigns, like the society that spawned them, tended to be pretty strait-laced and earnest.

Seen through modern eyes, the images have a certain nostalgic appeal — at least, they do for someone like myself, who grew up comfortably in the latter stages of the Baby Boom. Many other peoples’ experience of that era, of course, was much more problematic and oppressive.

I’m not going to begrudge others a bit of whimsical nostalgia when they look at Dreher’s paintings. Where I draw the line is at people who are actively working to wrench society back to that imagined ideal of “Greatness”. No, sorry, that ship has sailed and we’re all better for it.

Dreher frames each cluster of images with painted curtains to create a proscenium-style “stage”. That encourages us to build narratives when looking at the work. There’s plenty of grist for the storytelling mill too with all the familiar kitsch and marketing tropes on display.

To top it all off, the works are exquisitely painted, to the extent of having an air-brushed quality, even though they are hand-painted. So there’s a lot of dopamine hits when you look at them.

If you’re a viewer with a strong allegiance to early Baby Boom values, some of the content in this show will offend you. If you’re someone who has zero interest in turning back the clock to that massively idealized (and obscenely unjust) era, you’ll find a lot to ponder.

I’ll leave you with one more painting: “Carpe Elitismum”. It shows a beaming farm woman with an air of derangement about her pouring a glass of blood-red “juice” for her startled son from a can emblazoned with a “sacred heart” that symbolizes Jesus’ love for humanity.

Thirsty, anyone?