Feminist paintings critique current politics

Artist Margaret Sutherland’s exhibition at Studio 22 depicts frustration with political landscape

Sutherland’s oil painting Peace.
Sutherland’s oil painting Peace.
Credit: 
Supplied by Margaret Sutherland
Who would paint a nude portrait of Stephen Harper? Kingston artist Margaret Sutherland would. 
 
Sutherland is best known for her portrait of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Emperor Haute Couture, which shows Harper reclining on a sofa nude with a dog, surrounded by faceless men in suits. One woman in the portrait hands him what looks like a Tim Hortons cup on a silver platter. 
 
She does a lot more than paint naked leaders however, as evidenced by her new gallery show, Roller Derby, Politics and Other Blood Sports. The show, hosted at Studio 22, opens Oct. 27. 
 
The exhibition features oil paintings such as Peace, a portrait depicting Prime Minister-delegate Justin Trudeau, NDP leader Tom Mulcair, and Stephen Harper fighting as Parliament burned around them. Sutherland said the massive response to Emperor Haute Couture had been unexpected.
 
“When you hit a nerve it’s both gratifying, but it cuts both ways. You’re suddenly being noticed and scrutinized,” she said.
 
“You don’t always get the best response, which is probably a good thing because they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but it means you’re actually stating something important.” 
 
The portrait was meant to show her “fear and apprehension” about the direction that Canadian politics had headed, she said.
 
Sutherland has always painted portraits, but they weren’t always so politically charged. 
 
“The original portraiture was just trying to learn my craft,” she said. “I’d always been a bit political but I was just painting what I was interested in. It wasn’t a conscious decision.” 
 
She said she feels politics in Canada were becoming “polarized”. 
 
“[During] the last election, all you were getting were these sound bites that were not about substantive issues [because] they were getting their [voter] base out,” she said. 
 
“The difficult, complex issues were pushed aside and you ended up with ‘the niqab’. It was frighteningly shallow. It’s disheartening to look at.”
 
According to Sutherland, Peace was an attempt to portray her disillusionment. 
 
“[The election] was just about a power struggle,” she said.
 
Despite that, Sutherland said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 
 
The exhibition also featured portraits of women in roller derby. Sutherland, an outspoken feminist, said she “was really attracted to it [because] of the athleticism”.
 
“It also had a very feminine side, and it sort of made me think ‘this is a new feminism because they’re kind of sexy; they’re definitely feminine; they have all of these suggestive names; this is a really good combination.’”
 
One of her portraits, Annie, shows a blonde woman on a roller derby track.
 
“You have a woman who’s a referee, but she’s also wearing a tutu and fishnet stockings ... but they’re also very athletic and there’s a lot of strategy involved. It’s beautiful and graceful.”
 

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