Catriona Jeffries is the undisputed queen of Vancouver’s contemporary-art scene, representing the biggest local names at galleries and art fairs around the world. But her biggest challenge just might be managing the cash flow .
To find the home of Vancouver’s most internationally recognized art dealer, turn right off Main Street near Great Northern Way – just before the Midas Muffler and Kal Tire – continue down the street past Kirmac Collision, stop before you get to the Vancouver Detox Centre and there you are.
The Catriona Jeffries Gallery. A former auto-parts warehouse, it’s a nondescript grey box of a building. Visitors come in through the door off the alley. And then they have to stop to rethink what it means to come to a gallery and look at art. This is not about simple paintings on a wall or a sculpture with a recognizable form or idea.
When I visit the site, I find myself, once inside the six-metre-high main space, facing a large army-style half-dome tent of white plastic. After feeling my way through its unlit entry tunnel, I end up in a small room with a video playing on a television screen at the far end. It takes a few moments to understand. The screen shows a giant rectangular television floating on water in the middle of the night. It’s on a skiff. The skiff is floating down a river, and the TV screen on it is showing a movie. What is it? It takes some squinting and patience, but then it becomes clear. It’s Lord of the Rings. The floating screen is being filmed by someone in another boat nearby, following as the skiff slowly drifts past pilings and shore lights, dreamily spinning in the water as bearded men and fantastical creatures play out their epic story against the dramatic New Zealand landscape of jagged mountains on the screen. It’s hypnotic, meditative. Coming back outside is like waking up; everything is harsh and bright and too solid.
But now here is Jeffries herself, looking properly art dealerish – dark, curly hair cascading down; chunky-heeled grey suede ankle boots, jeans and sleek leather jacket with zippers at the top and bottom – beaming with pleasure at this work by her artist, Kevin Schmidt, and all its rich associations. The way he plays with filmed spectacle, the nature of blockbuster pictures, layered landscapes of there and here, real and fictionalized, and the poetry of slow movement on dark water.
“There is the idea of landscape and the idea of this landscape that gets punctured, a tradition of landscape within this country,” she says, explaining slowly in her deep, carefully modulated voice, pausing, waiting for the next part of her sentence to reveal itself to her. “Kevin provided a next place of confusion and puncture within a historical build-up of what landscape might represent.”
Likely, you don’t understand a word of that dense art speak, where historical context and theory meet. But that’s all right. Most people in the world don’t. The important thing is that the people Jeffries talks to – not just the museum curators but also the kind of people who make up the list of the world’s top collectors: mining zillionaires, sugar barons, investment bankers, real-estate kings and queens, and family-dynasty inheritors – understand it. More than that, they’re seduced by it. She translates art for them, helps them see the rich web of allusion and history embedded in each piece, understand why this artist is so much more interesting than another. Like having the most gifted literature professor you ever had beside you at the bookstore, explaining why you should read this particular book, whispering in your ear to pay attention to this scene, these words.
That skill is what has allowed Jeffries to take a select group of Vancouver artists (including Brian Jungen, Geoffrey Farmer, Germaine Koh and Myfanwy Macleod) and turn them into must-haves for the most avant-garde of private buyers: local collectors such as Henning and Brigitte Freybe of the deli-meats empire and über-realtor Bob Rennie; Toronto art patrons such as Ann and Marshall Webb, Jay Smith and Laura Rapp; corporate buyers such as Royal Bank of Canada; and, more importantly, major galleries in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Besides placing the newer artists, she has also become the trusted dealer for those who were established before she came along, including Ian Wallace and Christos Dikeakos.
“She has changed the game in Vancouver,” says John O’Brian, a UBC art-history professor who knows the local art world intimately. He has watched Jeffries’s progress over the years, since she was a student of his in the late 1980s, a student who made the unusual move of starting a small gallery downtown while still at school. “Vancouver was not a big centre for selling art,” he says, “but Catriona is expert at placing work. She’s respected internationally and people want to buy from her.”