Union Gallery’s art auction in action

The Journal gets an inside look at Cézanne’s Closet

At Cezanne’s Closet, art is awarded by a draw and ticketholders only have 60 seconds to select their favourite piece from the remaining works.
At Cezanne’s Closet, art is awarded by a draw and ticketholders only have 60 seconds to select their favourite piece from the remaining works.

What began as a night of frantically scoping out appelaing pieces of art turned into a lesson in artistic subjectivity.

Last Saturday evening Ban Righ Hall was transformed into a veritable art gallery, with 150 pieces of art of all shapes and sizes hanging on the walls, long tables of food and drinks and a collection of chairs set up in the room’s centre, in front of a small stage. Although there were no antique wooden auction paddles in sight, the Union Gallery’s annual fundraising gala, Cézanne’s Closet, was off to an elegant start.

The event’s premise is simple: when you purchase a ticket for the gala, it goes into a jar. The tickets in the jar are then drawn at random throughout the night and when your ticket is drawn, you have 60 seconds to grab the piece of art you most desire off the wall. Of course, the catch is that as others around you choose the pieces of art you want, you must constantly re-evaluate your number one choice.

When I arrived at Ban Righ, my coat was taken, I was handed a program and swept into the crowd of Queen’s students, professors, parents and Kingston residents scrutinizing the art in the hopes of choosing a favourite and being able to take their prized selection home with them.

Examining the program in my hands, with its extensive list of numbered art pieces and artists, I began to circle the numbers of pieces I liked. I soon found out that was an amateur move, however, when I saw other art aficionados ranking their choices and even taking photos of the pieces they were considering.

Heather Kembel, a Kingston resident, art enthusiast and Cezanne’s Closet veteran of eight years, said ranking her art choices helps her keep an eye on the selections she wants to choose.

“I’m putting them into different tiers by one, two and three,” she said. “Then I go around again and refine the list.”

Despite being chosen closer to the lottery’s end in previous years, Kembel has always gone home with a piece of art she’s admired.

“I’ve always got something I liked. I’ve never been disappointed,” she said. “It’s great art.”

Armed with a more streamlined ranking system, I circulate the room in the 15 minutes of preview time I have left. The art on the walls ranges anywhere from a bright yellow and green painting of slippers in a supermarket bin by BFA student Min Shin to a detailed black, white and red etching of a house on fire by established Canadian artist and University of Alberta associate professor Sean Caulfield. The pieces represent a wide variety of mediums—oil on canvas, silkscreening, woodcutting, lithography, photographs and mixed media.

It doesn’t take me long to have my heart set on one large, earth- and fire-toned mixed media canvas by fourth-year fine art student Gab Kokas. The bronzed and brown textured canvas stood out from the wall and garnered attention from those assessing each work—I certainly wasn’t the only one with my eye on the piece.

Kokas, ArtSci ’08, said he has donated pieces to Cezanne’s Closet each year for the past four years. He makes his living as an artist, he said, and events such as the Union Gallery fundraiser provide up-and-coming artists with publicity they might not otherwise receive. But that’s not the only reason he donates each year.

“As an artist, you’re not obliged, but it’s important to raise awareness for the art scene in Kingston,” he said. “I like to say I’m inspired by Kingston and its textures.”

When the clock struck 8 p.m., the hour-long preview came to a close and the ticket drawing began. More seasoned Closeters had their programs ready, waiting to cross off the pieces of art called out at the start of the draw.

To my surprise and delight, my name was called second out of 123 tickets and when I announced my painting of choice, a groan went through the crowd—Kokas’s painting was at the top of many participants’ lists, it seemed.

Cezanne’s Closet is proof-positive that art enthusiasts’ taste differs across the board. Although her ticket was drawn third-last, Kembel still jumped out of her seat and excitedly announced her artwork of choice.

At an event like this there really is something for everyone, said Jocelyn Purdie, Union Gallery director.

Purdie said the artwork ranges in skill level and style from fine art students to community and professional artists. Anyone can submit their pieces for the selection process, with priority given to upper-year fine art students.

Submissions received by local and professional artists aren’t juried, she said, and student submissions are juried by herself and a committee of students. Usually, she said, she accepts most pieces.

“We’re looking for high-quality work,” she said. “One of the reasons we might not take it is operational, if something glued on is falling off or something like that. You don’t want to take something that will fall apart.”

The pieces are donated by each artist, she said, and the money raised from the hefty $135 ticket prices makes up about 20 per cent of the Union Gallery’s operating budget.

Purdie said the event has grown in popularity, as evidenced by this year’s record 123 tickets sold. She thinks people keep returning to the Closet year after year simply because it’s fun.

“We have lots of people willing to support local art,” she said. “And it’s a good way to build your collection for a reasonable price.

“Most of the professional works [in the show] would go for more than $135.”

Purdie said it seemed this year’s participants went home satisfied with their pieces.

“Everybody’s taste is so different. Usually people get something they want.

“It’s very personal.”

After the last ticket was called and I picked up my painting from the wrapping station, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the 27 pieces of art left hanging on the walls. While none of the leftover pieces made the cut, there was something magnetic about the array of art I had seen that evening, including the leftovers.  As I walked out into the snow with my canvas, I couldn’t help but notice a gentleman excitedly gesturing at his selection—a piece I considered less than awe-inspiring. Luckily for Cezanne’s Closet, beauty, it would seem, really is in the eye of its beholder.

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