What lies beneath the Surface

Surface Detail is in full bloom at the Union Gallery.
Surface Detail is in full bloom at the Union Gallery.

Fine art is a funny thing. It has no clear definition; it encompasses all kinds of media and is entirely subjective unless you have some sort of understanding of the artist’s intent. More often than not, people are scared away by this ambiguity, but fine arts students have to face it head on, creating works of art that respect tradition while forging new territory.

Queen’s fine art students Wilmar Lam, Bethany Jo Mikelait, and Laurena Nash painted still life, landscapes and portraits, respectively, for an exhibition titled Surface Detail where the artists explore traditional styles of academic painting.

Lam’s works reflect her Asian heritage through still life images; Mikelait explores texture in landscape with an eye for the Impressionist tradition; and Nash alternates between realism and abstraction in portraiture.

The painting that seemed to jump out from all the others in this exhibit was Nash’s “Head with Pirate Map.” A mess of colours and a face crudely outlined in thick black strokes of paint, the painting is one of the most exciting works in the show. The pirate map, located in the upper left corner of the painting, is indicated by a red, dashed line that leads to a red X nestled between two curving palm trees. Nevertheless, it is the man and the odd combination of colours in his face and clothing that makes the work so appealing—so interesting and exciting.

In contrast, Lam’s works, while executed well, are very controlled and static—as still life paintings tend to be—and as such they seem to fall flat when grouped with paintings so full of light and movement. This does not mean Lam’s paintings aren’t very good. In fact, her technique is superb and her use of darker tones make for some beautiful works of art.

There is, however, a trio of paintings by Lam grouped together that seem to emerge from the concept of traditional still life painting. “Apples,” “Mahjong” and “Bamboo” are hung side-by-side in the gallery and work together despite the incongruity of placing a popular Chinese tile game between images of nature.

In these works, Lam depicts a portion of the game, just as she depicts a portion of an apple tree and a bamboo forest. What’s most interesting about these paintings is that they indicate a larger scene, as if they are details of a larger work of art; however, each one is stylistically and formally strong enough to stand on its own.

Traditional formal and aesthetic values are important aspects of the paintings in Surface Detail, and the titles reflect an interest in art history traditions. Mikelait’s “Impression: Savannah” is almost a parody of Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” of 1872. Mikelait imitates the quick brushstrokes of the impressionists in this painting that combine reds, yellows and oranges with a touch of green in a field of wild African grasses. With three African trees, an antelope in the mid-ground and purple-hued mountains in the background, the painting is a moment in time captured on canvas.

Impressionist paintings were quickly executed so that artists could catch a moment in time—an impression—before the angle of the sun changed. They worked outdoors, usually painting on smaller canvases before returning to their studios to recreate the image on a larger canvas.

While it is possible that Mikelait was able to do this with not only “Impression: Savannah,” but also “Blue Mist,” “Morning Glow,” “Lilies” and the several scenes in “Water Passages,” there is a feeling of detachment with each of these landscapes that suggests she worked from photographs or a preconceived perception in her mind. If this is the case, she has not truly explored the impressionist style with these works. She does, however, seem to explore this issue in her still life painting “Bell Peppers,” which showcases an exploration of light and shadow with quick dabs of paint.

Following in the tradition of art history, the three artists collaborated in a work called “Just what is it that makes today’s paintings so different, so appealing?” which plays on the title of a famous British Pop Art work by Richard Hamilton titled “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” Richard Hamilton’s collage from 1956 explores the decadent Hollywood culture and the idea of appearances that dominated western culture in the ’50s. Following along the same vein, Lam, Mikelait and Nash explore the idea of the tradition of art and art history through an image that places the artists in a decadent gallery space that includes plush red carpeting, creamy yellow walls and wood-panelled ceilings with hanging gilt-framed paintings. It is simply an examination of the discourse of art history and emerging art.

While all the paintings were well executed, there was little that was truly special about any of these works. Much of what was displayed has been done before—which was, in part, the point of this exhibition—but if these artists want to emerge as professionals, they are going to have to create art that looks not only to the past, but into the future as well.

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