Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Big Picture 23

There are painters who attack their canvases, painters who fence with their canvases, painters who roll around on their canvases, and painters who caress their canvases. Then there’s Elaine Despins, who appears to paint with a makeup brush and a foundation sponge. Lucky us.

Despins’s new series of large figurative works in repose, entitled Presence/Emergence (forgive the 80’s art theory title, she’s French Canadian), is a stunning collection of oil on canvas works that glow like fireflies in mid-summer.

The last time I saw work this softly crafted, it was an exhibition of felt toys. Despins layers her oils with an unnerving delicacy, as if she’s afraid of waking her sleeping subjects. The result of all this baby’s ass smoothness are paintings that fluctuate between photograph-like hyper-realist and watercolour translucent, often on the same canvas. One painting, of a reclining man sporting dreadlocks, looks so real in places, especially around the dreads, and so dreamily unreal in others, that I wondered, at first glance, if Despins was not a painter but a master collagist, one who seamlessly melded paint and photo-prints. Alas, no – she’s just an enormously skilled painter.

Technique aside, Despins paintings are grand meditations on the split consciousness of sleep. Drowsy figures splay across the tops of each canvas, big and fleshy as walruses, while far below them, separated by an impenetrable wash of obsidian, ghostly dream heads shake.

Are these heads the faces of the sleepers, or perhaps faces in their dreams? Guardian angels? Whatever the heads may literally be, the dialogue Despins establishes between the bodies and the faces is both meditative and unnerving, genial and threatening. While the luminous bodies hover over the viewer like living, breathing people suspended in air, the fist-sized indistinct heads, painted in sickly calendula yellows and crematoria ash, vibrate and twist as if they fear being seen too clearly.

The separation between the corporeal and the subconscious has not been this clearly (nor eerily) delineated since mean old Alex Colville pinprick-painted his way through his own psycho-sexual alienation in a series of nocturnal kitchen sink portraits. But I bet Despins has a better relationship with her models.


If there’s one thing I don’t like about this job, it’s having to say not nice things about too-nice art. I feel bad, guilty, karmicly imperilled, like a low-rent Isabelle Basset beating her servants with a fire poker. But sometimes you have to be cruel to make copy.

Jake Boone’s big but not very grand (in any sense) figurative paintings bring out the worst in me, because I hate to see expensive wall space wasted on dull art. That Boone is a competent illustrator is not in question – the people on the canvases look like people, so mission accomplished. And, if his paintings were not so relentlessly monochromatic, I might be able to tell you whether or not he knows how to mix paints. But to what end is all this evident ability being served? For a more lifeless selection of portraits you’d have to visit Madame Tussaud’s.

The key problem with Boone’s work is size. Boone has chosen to capture his subjects in sparse outline, to carve them onto canvas in delicate cuts – which is actually the best part of each work. Boone’s lines are deceptively simple, capturing mood and facial expressions with brilliant economy. However, this economy is wholly undermined by the enormity of the canvases. The skilful draughtsmanship that would have appeared charming and concise on, say, small squares of paper (the portraits are really exaggerated doodles), or at least much smaller canvases, is completely lost in Boone’s six foot high snowstorms of bland, underwhelming oil and encaustic mush.

Instead of being drawn to Boone’s careful penciling, the viewer instead must negotiate acres of dull, pasty surface. His subjects manage to appear both big as life and completely diminished at the same time – a sort of perverse accomplishment, granted, but there’s no point in applauding bad editing.

I left this exhibit thinking two things: Boone’s big ass paintings ask us to grant his subjects the same importance he clearly bestows on them, but, like a too-proud parent, he oversells the material and thus deconstructs his own monumentalism; and, I’d love to have a look at Boone’s sketchbook, where I’m sure the original magic waits.

As it stands, all we have here is lots of paint and lots of wax applied lots of times to mean not a whole heck of a lot.


There’s nothing spare or underdone about Robyn Cumming’s photo portraits – if anything, she errs on the side of incaution. But the results are so entertaining, you’ll forgive Cumming’s occasional lapses into empty music video cool and Baz Luhrmann-like pastiche.

A series of tableaux framed by red velvet stage curtains (the first clue that we’re in for some high diving acts), Cumming’s photographs attempt to capture the interior world of her subjects via some very externalized theatrics. Naturally, prop comedy abounds in these works, where every subject is either surrounded by, wrapped in, or somehow impeded by a carefully composed stage set’s worth of junk, costumes, furnishings, and general mayhem.

Many of Cumming’s doll house games work brilliantly – such as the image of a woman turning herself into a mermaid with tensor bandages and floppy leather gloves, or, my favourite, a blunt-faced woman engulfed by birthday party flotsam and a flattened, bleeding cake (having just turned 40, I second the emotion).

When Cumming aims for the obvious, however, her work appears a bit predictable. We are meant to read narratives into these photographs, but that doesn’t mean we need Cumming to sound out the words. A little mystery goes a long way, and would have saved some of Cumming’s more clichéd images - the young writer swamped by empty coffee cups (oh, those writers, staying up all night haunted by the mot juste), the creepy family smiling behind a picture frame that obscures their broken and amputated limbs (oh, those destructive nuclear families).

Theatre folk call this sort of metaphoric literalness “spoon feeding the audience”, and dismiss it as laziness. But I wonder if the structure Cumming created for this series, the overarching life-is-a-stage idea, was simply too grandiose a theme for a young, enthusiastic artist to not fill up with everything but the kitchen cleaver? Think about the overcooked things you made in your formative years.

At some point, this talented photographer will learn to pare down her furnishings and stop brow beating the viewer with Big Ideas, or she’ll go the other way and succumb to truly baroque excess. I just wish she’d stop buying up all the good stuff at the Value Village.

Elaine Despins
Edward Day Gallery 952 Queen Street West Until March 24

Jake Boone
back to my darling
Redhead Gallery 401 Richmond Street West Until March 26

Robyn Cumming
In Place
XEXE Gallery 624 Richmond Street West Until March 26