Grey and white monochromatic artwork is green

Home Grown by Todd Lambeth

Where: Xchanges Gallery

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When: Opening Friday, 7 p.m. Runs Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 27

Like it or not, marijuana is part of our national identity, according to artist Todd Lambeth.

“A lot of Canadians, I’m sure, realize it’s a part of our culture. But it’s like your twisted relative, you don’t want to talk about it,” Lambeth said.

While it isn’t obvious at first glance, the monochromatic works in his series Home Grown are united by that theme. In subtle scales of white and light grey, they represent drug busts, glass pipes and grow-ops masquerading as suburban homes.

For Lambeth, who graduated from UVic’s master of fine arts program in 2008 and now teaches there as a sessional instructor, the subject matter is often just an anchor for the form. But in this case, they complemented one another in a fresh way — especially in challenging perceptions.

“The subject, for me, in painting, is always just kind of something to hang the paintings on — a reason to make the painting. But having said that, the subject of marijuana and the cultural issues surrounding marijuana kind of go hand in hand with the way they’re painted, in terms of challenging notions of perception, space and time.”

They also share a theme in hidden truths. In one case, it’s the subject — like the suburban home grow-op. In another, the viewer’s perception of light in a painting swallows up the image of a plant.

Home Grown features 11 works ranging in size from nine-by-12 inches to five-by-four feet. He created the majority of work for the series in 2009 thanks to a grant from the B.C. Arts Council, as a way to build his thesis work that concentrated on psychoactive drugs — from mushrooms and peyote to marijuana.

While Lambeth calls it social commentary, he says he has no intention of flying the pro-marijuana flag. And the timing of the show just happens to coincide with political action in the U.S. toward legalization.

“I think a large part of the drug culture that I’ve explored kind of coincides with the idea of painting as an escapist act. When you’re firing on all cylinders painting, your mind kind of checks out. You just — your body takes over. And I think it’s a large part of why I paint, because it gives me an opportunity to escape into a world that is completely my own construction,” he said.

Lambeth pursued his master’s degree 15 years after graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design — a gap he spent painting scenic backdrops for commercial galleries in Toronto and Calgary. He saw grad school as an opportunity to hone his conceptual skills.

The painting process for Home Grown relates to Lambeth’s previous work in the way he uses photographic references as a basis. They are projected or copied with the help of a grid, as he translates the photo into a more tactile form. In order to create some distance, he paints the images upside-down. It’s a way to stop his mind from recognizing representational images and copy in a traditional way, Lambeth said.

Putting photographic images into painted form is, in a small way, a response to the explosion of digital imagery in the last decade.

“It’s now a disposable image,” he said. “I try, with a painting, to elevate its status a little bit. So you spend a little longer with the image than you may with the photograph, extending the lifespan a little bit.”

But because of the quiet colour pallette — there are no bold colours, just soft greys and whites — the images aren’t fully formed.

“They exist in a state of either becoming or dying. They challenge the viewer’s perception of either grasping this image as it’s being born or as it’s being departed from your visual interpretation,” he said.

Home Grown also fits with some of Lambeth’s previous works in the way it centres on social commentary, he said. Friends who have already seen the works, which have been shown as individual pieces in other exhibitions but never all together, have made links with a theme he regularly explores: Canadian identity. Lambeth was born in Calgary, but calls himself a “Canadian native,” having lived in Montreal, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver.

“I just hang my hat wherever I happen to be, to get work,” he said.

“ ‘;Home Grown’ is kind of a pun on home-grown marijuana, but also referencing the Canadiana idea. And the fact that I’m currently a British Columbian — so it’s a play off of those things.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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