Diversity on display with exhibition of work by finalists for RBC Canadian Painting prize

Detail from Sun and a Tide Pool by Kizi Speilman Rose.

You can now see the (blank) of new Canadian painting at the National Gallery, and there you can decide how to fill in that (blank).

Is it the best of new Canadian painting? The newest, the freshest? Is it the cutting edge of new Canadian painting or — and some people will see this as the opposite of cutting edge — is it the corporate stamped and approved?

There’s no single right answer to fill in the (blank), as the impact of any painting is subjective, and the 15 paintings that are finalists for the 2017 RBC Painting Competition do not prompt an obvious consensus. Nor do they need one. In fact, there can’t even be a consensus on whether the 15 painting are all, in fact, paintings.

Line Dance by Angela Teng.

Angela Teng’s “painting,” which hearkens to the work of American artist Mary Heilmann, involves neither brush or canvas nor any other typical painterly tool or surface. Teng poured thick strings of paint — sort of an acrylic yarn — and then crocheted them into a mat that hangs on the wall.

Is it a painting? If your answer is to have any verisimilitude, you must first consider what a painting is; what you, personally, consider a painting to be. You don’t have to reach a decision, for the reward here is the contemplative journey and not necessarily an emphatic destination. Art, done well, makes you reconsider what you see, including both the world around you, and the art itself.

“One cohesive statement about painting isn’t being made. It’s about experimentation in the medium in a lot of ways,” says Corrie Jackson, the associate curator of the RBC art collection. The exhibition of this year’s 15 finalists is “really diverse,” Jackson says. “It’s inclusive to a lot of different approaches to what painting can be.”

That diversity — that “stylistic conversation,” to use Jackson’s phrase — is typical of the competition’s 19 years of hailing the work of emerging Canadian artists. This year, almost 700 entrants were whittled down to these 15 — including two from Gatineau, Kizi Speilmann Rose and David Kaarsemaker, whose abstract canvases each make a study of textural contrasts, between media, or shapes or tones.

Elsewhere the works offers allusions to an eclectic array of social, personal and aesthetic relationships, from the cross-border and global issues that are so much a part of Canadian life, to the Canadian tradition of landscape painting.

Temper Ripened by Ambera Wellman.

Look deeply into any surface, and you may be surprised at what you see. Ambera Wellman’s Temper Ripened is an oil painting of a porcelain bird, perhaps a swan, its long neck hanging limply. At first notice it’s a sad and delicate “feminist critique,” until the familiar cobalt blue patterns are recognized as violent scenes. It’s an unsettling recast of a familiar motif.

The winner of the RBC prize will be selected by a jury and announced at the National Gallery Oct. 17. The winner gets $25,000 and two runners up each get $15,000 — and all three of the top paintings are added to the RBC’s corporate collection (which includes approximately 4,500 Canadian works of art that are displayed in corporate locations in Canada, New York and London, England). The other finalists each win $2,500.

Portage 1 by David Kaarsemaker.

The complete list of finalists this year includes: Michael Freeman Badour, Amanda Boulos, Cindy Ji Hye Kim and Veronika Pausova (all from Toronto), Angela Teng, Tristan Unrau and M.E Sparks (Vancouver), Teto Elsiddique (Halifax), Wei Li (Edmonton), Laura Payne (Saskatoon), Laura Rokas-Bérubé (Lacolle, Quebec), Joani Tremblay (Montreal),  Ambera Wellmann (Guelph) and Gatineau’s David Kaarsemaker and Kizi Spielmann Rose.

The exhibit runs to Oct. 22, so for only a few days after the winner is announced and all that publicity is gained. Such a quick close seems a (blank) shame.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.