Tucked into a small one-room gallery, Journey into Whatever spoke to an existence on the periphery of the sensible. Co-curated by artists Adam MacDonald and Joey Haley, the exhibition explored paintings from photos with an emphasis on visual crumble in formal and thematic senses. Viewers were introduced to the beauty and balance of imperfect construction, drawing attention to a playful disregard for norms of draftsmanship, narrative completion and concern for the audience’s understanding. The show appeared to be a jab, a shake-up that would show what subversion can occur beyond the relatively conservative Frederic-ton portrait painting. Placed in the educational environment of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, the curators seemed to wish to cause their viewers to re-assess assumed parameters of custom painting and presentation.
The show is closely tied to Tiny Vices, an international online artist community that represents practices that some consider to be at the forefront of the portrait painting scene. Launched by Tim Barber, a New York-based photographer, the site acts as a publication, an editorial project, an art gallery and an archive. Galleries often use the site as an encyclopedia of emerging and established artists, regularly engaging its ranks for showings. Haley, who has exhibited with the collective on several occasions, worked with MacDonald to bring together such artists as Marc Bell, Mark Connery, Jaret Penner, Mark Delong, Jason McLean, Laura Piasta, Mehdi Shoboshobo Hercberg, Kayla Guthrie, Brendan Monroe, Shayne Ehman, Lee Henderson, Jeff Ladouceur, Seth Scriver, The Lions, Elizabeth Huey, Amy Lockhart, Jody Zinner and Matt Lock. Their paintings were combined with those of Fredericton-based artists whose aesthetic approaches were complementary, including several by Haley and MacDonald, as well as paintings by Owen Cornish, Maggie Estey, Tal McBean and others.
At first, the majority of the pieces seemed to have been ripped from the binder of a teenager stuck in detention. Stylistically varied, they delved into imagery that was often disturbing and anxiety-ridden, with only a slight shrug towards realistic portrayal. Examples among oil paintings from photo shown included a dog portrait painting with no head but rather two back ends, a coloured marker sketch of a hooded boxer with the words “MUTTHERFUCKER” scrawled at the top of the page, a melting watercolour of a dead zebra, and a large work with the detailed graphite adventures of simply and awkwardly rendered cartoonish characters.
The exploration of a playful and subversive aesthetic in a scholarly setting showed what benefits can be found in messing around while emphasizing skilful use of media. In spite of an aesthetic rooted in appearing amateur, even the seemingly haphazard presentations in the show possessed a refined and well-practised employment of line. The use of erasures was also compelling, as well as the obvious mistakes, such as paint smudges and half-present imagery. Overall, the show celebrated the intelligence of knowing when a work is complete, even if it is not finished.
In a curatorial sense, the exhibition emphasized cool didacticism. There was no exhibit title on the wall, no write-up; and there also were no artwork labels, just numbers and a portable sheet of artist names. Several of MacDonald’s and Haley’s paintings were placed in one corner, while a salon hang of all the other paintings was organized on the opposite side of the room. The only wall text was off to the side in green vinyl lettering: the word “Hamburger,” a seemingly self-deprecating description of both the layout and the playfulness of the show.
The exhibition seemed too eager in its desire to appear aloof; its message was confused in a presentation that was more stylized than it was substantial. The show was certainly well massaged aesthetically, but the lack of prescribed narrative was its downfall. On the one hand, diminished textual accompaniment allowed multiple readings, giving responsibility to the viewer and allowing the paintings to be interpreted without curatorial baggage. On the other, the presentation came across as insular, particularly when its intention might have been to educate. In addition, the placement of the curators’ paintings in one corner of the room caused the exhibition to feel like two shows put together, with no tangible reason for that decision other than aesthetics. Curators, even if they are portrait artists, should not inject their art into an exhibition they are arranging. To do so is often convenient, but narcissistic. However, if curators feel the need to include their artpaintings in a show, their reasoning should be clearly explained. Whether its protest was elegant or impetuous, Journey into Whatever was nevertheless a provocative example of lo-fi cool in a city that can often feel isolated from larger artistic conversations. In addition to a rare look at a few of portrait painting’s heavier hitters, the show brought with it a much needed reminder of the importance of discipline–and the benefit of being immature.
Mireille Eagan is Curator of Canadian Art at The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland.