Phantoms in the Front Yard, an all-male painting collective that exalts the romantic vision of old-world figurative realism in art, has just unveiled a pop-up exhibition at the HSBC headquarters in downtown Vancouver. In this showcase of what might be possible in the interpretation of Shed, we see glimpses of a tenderness that we wouldn’t expect from men, especially while exploring one of the most stereotyped symbols of masculinity, the ersatz tool shed. Among a tight edit of engaging pieces, we are treated to pencil and watercolour renderings of a wandering man among allegorically portrayed sheds intertwined with animals reminiscent of Grimm’s Fairytales. An installation of an actual shed, wallpapered in antique rose-covered paper and filled with paintings of the making of this shed, seems to spiritualise the everyday manual labourers as if they were today’s Goyas.
Two paintings by this show’s thematic curator, Jonathan Sutton, take Shed to the metaphorical octave. I No Longer Know Where You End and I Begin, and This Is Still Real for Me, are moving scenes featuring two instances of a figure bathed in religious light that make us feel as if we are spying on the soul of a profound woman. Here, Shed deploys itself as a verb, and invents meaning around what we want to, or are forced to, let go of in life. Sutton elaborates here on the intrigue of the collective paintings, and the mission of their painters.
A: You are the artist responsible for the choice of the current exhibition’s theme, Shed. What was your thought behind this theme?
JS: Ideas of disintegration, surrender, short and long term histories, personal narratives, and identities, all entwined with references to the concrete noun form of the word, denoting a modest constructed workspace.
A: Can you say more about the meaning of shed as a noun, and shed as a verb, and how the Phantom members have interpreted this differently?
JS: It seems we took the noun form literally and the verb form metaphorically, in some cases both at once. Caroline Weaver, a guest in this show and our first female collaborator, has created beautifully surreal scenes around a physical shed, which reflect on aging, generations, nature, personal history, spirituality, and nostalgia. Jay Senetchko manages to overlap the two meanings by displaying – and even using as media – artifacts from an actual shed he had built as a hanging space in a downtown parking lot. He offers dense conceptual possibilities there along with an immediate and visceral impact. Paul Morstad seems to take aspects of the literal noun form as departure points for broader reflections on history, age, people and animals, communication, language, and habitat. The rest of us explore the verb action of – or surrender to – shedding, through a range of areas involving relationship histories, personal identity, gender roles, and, again, aging.
We’re all wresting innovation from tradition. Our attention to technique reflects this I think, and our styles and conceptual frameworks are each majorly informed by specific studies in art history. I often find more variety in our styles than overlap but the shows always cohere around this strong paradox of novelty and familiarity. Our practice of building each show around a proposed theme also binds the work.
A: What does it mean to be a collective of romantic white male painters?
JS: Maybe a unique mix of unpretentious groundedness and creative sensitivity. We’re irreverent to each other and to the art world. At the same time, I couldn’t easily find a group of guys more respectful, supportive, and understanding of each other’s work, processes, and lives in general. There’s a unique lack of ego politics among us, even while each member is strong in their own vision and opinions. It’s not an exclusively male collective because our curator, Pennylane Shen, figures so prominently in all aspects, and Caroline Weaver’s recent contributions as a guest have been inspiring. We’re romantic in our vision of adherence to personal aesthetic values that we bolster with disciplined pragmatism. As far as being white and male goes, discussions are ongoing around both identity areas. In our show Heritage we discovered a lot of recent immigrant ancestry, including Russian, Eastern European and Jewish, which raises cultural, demographic, and linguistic questions around the roots of our “whiteness”. In (M)use we looked at how we look at male artists (including us) looking at – and working with – women, and as usual, had more questions than answers.
A: In your questioning, do you see figurative realism as a rebellious stance of classicism in a contemporary art world full of absurdity and abstraction?
JS: Yes, definitely. We might not even want it to be so rebellious – our work probably wouldn’t change much if figurative realism suddenly became less marginalised than it is. We’re creating the work we care about, and in our respect for traditions and craft we are the opposite of rebellious.
However, we’re reminded regularly of our opposition to trends that we’d as happily overlook. What is rebellious is our dismissal of figurative realism’s dismissal. We just find it more interesting to reach in both directions – past and future – in our innovations. We admire artists – not only visual – who pave new directions out of a meaningful reckoning with what’s gone before, rather than out of nowhere. This is also harder, which we like.
Our mission is to challenge the contemporary art scene with a growing body of work that is committed to realism and the human figure, because figurative art has become the phantom of the fine art world, haunting both Modernism and Postmodernism with its ties to a classical tradition, refusing to be dismissed, ignored or forgotten. Our stand is gently against the Artist as The Radical Individual, and gently for the Artist as The Collective Messenger.
Phantoms in the Front Yard: Shed, 12 November until 30 November, Pendulum Gallery, HSBC Building, 885 West Georgia Street, Vancouver. www.pendulumgallery.bc.ca
Image: I No Longer Know Where You End And I Begin. Courtesy Jonathan Sutton