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"An Altered Peace"
Andrew Salgado, "An Altered Peace," 2012, oil on canvas, 47” x 59”.
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Andrew Salgado, "Nathan," 2013, oil on canvas, 74.8” x 90.6”.
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Teresa Healy, Vancouver Art Gallery.
Rodney Graham, "Halcion Sleep," 1994 (detail) textile and single channel video projection. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund.
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"not afraid to die"
Althea Thauberger, "not afraid to die," 2001, still from single channel video projection. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisitions Assistance Program and the Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund.
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Roy Arden, "Citizen," 2000, still from single channel video with sound. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program and the Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund.
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Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.
"Rise and Fall"
Fiona Tan, "Rise and Fall," 2009, 2-channel video installation. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Purchased with funds from The Jean MacMillan Southam Major Art Purchase Fund.
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"I Remember that Yellow Chair"
Jay Senetchko, "I Remember that Yellow Chair," oil on canvas, 40.6” x 57.5”.
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"Self portrait @ age 47"
Elizabeth Topham, "Self portrait @ age 47," 2013, oil on canvas, 24” x 35.8.
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"Facial Manipulation #5"
Kristine Zingeler, "Facial Manipulation #5," oil on panel, 35.8” x 53.9”.
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Andrew Salgado, "The Artist."
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Andrew Salgado, "Acquaintance."
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"Lo and Behold"
Dana Holst, "Lo and Behold," oil on panel, 31.9” x 31.9”.
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Kelcie De Wildt, "Dad," charcoal on BFK paper, 70.9” x 70.9”.
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"The Other Side of Fifty"
Nelly Kazenbroot, "The Other Side of Fifty," acrylic on hardboard, 24” x 17.9” .
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Suzanne Paleczny, "Beauty Mask," oil on canvas, 43.9” x 32.1”.
Portraiture Vies for Attention in the Digital Age
By Beverly Cramp
You might think that staple of art history, the genteel portrait, would be under threat in this quick-fix age as the so-called thumb generation posts countless snapshots of friends and family on social media sites. Pose for a painter? Who even has time to sit still that long? Yet, to borrow a famous quotation, portraiture’s obituary may, indeed, be premature. Several Western Canadian exhibitions this fall explore the genre’s evolution, arguing its interest in our favourite subject – ourselves – and its ability to reflect the human condition anew, ensure its continued relevance.
Of course, technology itself opens new doors for artists, allowing them to experiment beyond the bounds of paint with new digital tools that offer distinct advantages, such as the ability to explore subjects over days, weeks or even years. As well, portraiture need no longer be static or frozen in place – it can move subjects through different settings, zooming in and out, and offer more varied insights than a singular painting or sculpture. Even within painting, younger artists like Calgary’s Erik Olson and Andrew Salgado, who grew up in Regina, push themselves to produce edgy work that challenges traditional assumptions, including one of the biggies – that portraits are mostly flattering representations of wealthy clients. Some innovators choose unlikely subjects, while others seek new ways to deconstruct the subject or challenge realism’s stronghold with lessons from abstraction. Olson recently sold out his first show at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Vancouver, and Salgado, who’s attracting international attention for aggressive painting that considers notions of masculinity, is bringing work home from Britain this fall for his first solo exhibition in Regina.
Still, social media is having an impact. “It makes historical portraiture less special than it was,” says Ian Thom, a senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “We are so used to seeing pictures of people that to have a singular image taken out of the multitudes to represent a particular person is hard for people to get their heads around. It’s the same for still life pictures. Both genres were once examples of extraordinary luxury. A 17th century Dutch picture of tulips was something to see when each individual flower was worth more than most people made in a year.”
Portraits in Time, which Thom organized, features videos that expand the flat surface of the picture plane and challenge the stability of traditional sculpture. “It gives a different sense of narrative and who the person being depicted is,” says Thom. “It is an opportunity to look at seeing the idea of a portrait beyond what the normal notion of a portrait is.” And what is a normal portrait? “Most people imagine it as a snapshot of a person in a particular time presenting themselves in a certain way,” he says.
Many of the West’s greatest artists have tried to capture the moods and manners of the human visage – from Rubens and Rembrandt to Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Warhol. Yet art students are often told that painted portraits are passé, no longer a suitable undertaking for
anyone with ambitions in an art world enchanted with the possibilities of installation, digital media and hybrid forms. “When I first started art school in the 1980s, the word was that painting was dead,” says Vancouver artist Elizabeth Topham. “But I still had this inner voice inside me saying that with pigment and oil you can create an illusion that can be abstract and yet evoke emotion.”
Topham, one of 30 finalists for this year’s Kingston Prize for Canadian Portraiture, believes the possibilities of painted portraiture are infinite. “You could have a thousand people do a portrait of the same subject and they would all be different.” Still, she says it’s healthy to rethink things. “Painting used to be the patriarch of the arts. It needed to be knocked off its pedestal in order to re-invent itself.”
Salgado, who was part of this year’s Art Basel, a major international art fair, has upcoming exhibitions in Copenhagen, Cape Town and New York. Sometimes compared to Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, he’s in demand for commissions. Yet he doesn’t call himself a portrait artist, preferring a more general term – abstract painter. His style tends toward the expressionist, with large renditions of what he calls “floating heads” in dramatic primary colours. He says he tries to push himself out of his comfort zone. So, for example, after being praised for the haunting eyes in early works, he started to minimize them.
Boosting public awareness of portraiture has been a concern of Australian-born Julian Brown, who with his wife, Kaaren, founded the Kingston Prize. Growing up in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, Brown was entranced by a longstanding portrait competition, the Archibald Prize. Started in 1921, it became a popular and, at times, controversial award. “The works focused on distinguished subjects (and famous people) and crowds flocked to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where the short-listed artists were hung,” says Brown. “People love to see heroes and anti-heroes. I remember feeling what a great way to raise national consciousness, pride in our artists, and what a celebration of people it was.”
The Browns, who moved to Canada in 1961, named the prize after the Ontario city where they raised their family. “We thought having a portrait competition like the Archibald Prize would be advantageous to Canada,” says Brown. Launched in 2005, it has been held every two years since. The first winner, Marcia Perkins, received a $3,000 prize donated by the Browns. Subsequent winners were Joshua Choi, of Toronto; Andrew Valko, of Winnipeg; and Michael Bayne, of Kingston.
However, getting wider recognition for the contest has been tough, despite some 431 entrants this year and a purse that has climbed to $20,000. “We’re not taken seriously at all,” says Brown. “It’s one of our puzzles. There has been virtually no media coverage, except for a piece in the National Post in 2009. And getting gallery space for our shortlist and eventual winners is a big problem too.”