Emerging Artists Take Centre Stage: National Gallery Hosts 19th Annual RBC Painting Competition

A bomb, a nun, and a pair of shiny black boots hang together as a powerful trio of paintings that greet viewers at the exhibition of this year’s finalists for the 19th annual RBC Painting Competition.

Aimed at supporting the careers of young contemporary artists and the visual arts community in Canada, the competition offers unparalleled exposure to fifteen finalists and awards a total of $85,000 in prize money. Chosen by a jury of art professionals from close to 700 submissions, the finalists’ paintings represent some of the best in emerging Canadian talent.

Tristan Unrau, Nun, After Pasolini, 2017, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist


As diverse as they are, the works reveal a prevalent mood in contemporary painting: an underlying sense of mystery and uncertainty. Marked by ambitious material experimentation, political and personal themes, and a rejection of ostentation, these paintings reflect the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of our time.

Co-curated by National Gallery of Canada Associate Curator Rhiannon Vogl and Curatorial Assistant in Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, Danuta Sierhuis, the installation demonstrates the curators’ astuteness in drawing out the stylistic and thematic ties between the jury-selected paintings.  

One of these ties is an impulse to make the familiar strange — an impulse never clearer than in the exhibition’s figurative works. In Tristan Unrau’s Nun, After Pasolini, a nun bites her lip in an expression of surprise and intrigue, creating a discomfiting sexual undertone. Drawing on the conventions of film noir, Cindy Ji Hye Kim’s Conspiracy Theory juxtaposes the silhouette of a young girl against a large bomb and three rats in an unexplained narrative. Joani Tremblay’s landscape, The Lure of the Local Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, is equally mysterious: reminiscent of a coral reef, this colourful world feels strangely familiar and yet totally alien. In these paintings, objects can be both deeply personal and universal — in Michael Freeman Badour’s Patrick’s Boots, a pair of the artist’s brother’s worn black boots is so ordinary it appears iconic.

Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Conspiracy Theory, 2017, acrylic, ink, pastel and oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist


The works of Amanda Boulos, Teto Elsiddique, Ambera Wellmann, and Wei Li tap into personal and collective vulnerability. At the same time, they emphasize the contingent and migratory nature of symbols and icons. With imagery subverting the traditional narratives of Middle East socio-politics, for instance, Boulos’ Duckie Wants Water features a tiny duck trying to drink, drop by drop, from a Mesopotamian votive figurine. Elsiddique’s neckrings, a breezy thing depicts a head connected to a Western-style wedding dress by a coil of neck rings evocative of African and Asian cultures. In Wellmann’s Temper Ripened, sexual and violent scenes drawn from the artist’s personal experience decorate a languishing porcelain swan. Wei Li’s painting Obsessiveness and excitement, never growing out of them — a reaction to the artist’s experience navigating the contradictory customs and values faced as an immigrant to Canada — features a mass of shapes and patterns competing for space on the canvas.

Wei Li, Obsessiveness and excitement, never growing out of them, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist


In other standout works, Kizi Spielmann Rose, Angela Teng, Laura Payne, David Kaarsemaker and M.E. Sparks explore the possibilities of optical illusion and the formal properties of paint. Showing a preference for doubt and confusion over clarity and confidence, these artists destabilize our ability to read the space of a painting. In Sun and a Tide Pool, Spielmann Rose, for example, creates tension between foreground and background by scraping layers from a wax medium and revealing the intricate pattern beneath. Teng, on the other hand, blurs the line between sculpture and painting by crocheting dried strips of acrylic paint into abstract compositions. In Line Dance (Pink and Black for Mary Heilmann), Teng offsets horizontal lines of black on a pink background to create optical play.

Kizi Spielmann Rose, Sun and a Tide Pool, 2017, acrylic, oil pastel and oil stick on panel. Courtesy of the artist


Using a geometric pattern to create the illusion of folds on a flat surface, Payne’s Enneadec II resembles an unfurled fan. In Kaarsemaker’s Portage 1, a translucent rock shape hovers between solidity and ghostliness by occupying the entirety of a room. The giant shape of a dog’s head, obscuring the objects behind it, dominates M.E Sparks’ large canvas, Hollow Dog. The flatness of the looming form does not match its apparent closeness to the viewer. The result? Captivating dissonance.

M.E. Sparks, Hollow Dog, 2017, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist


Two works explore the familiar unfamiliar of human hands. Eight hands gently pull at a cast of spider-like shapes in Veronika Pausova’s Typography — though the loose grip of the fingers suggest the spiders might actually be in control. In Laura Rokas-Bérubé’s Paint by Number 7, a creased, thin hand hovers a loaded paintbrush over a painting. A hand holding a paintbrush is a powerful archetypal reference to the artist’s self-image, yet here, the artist’s hand is made of paper, making it a sensitive and humble symbol of creativity in a swiftly changing world.

The work of these fifteen finalists in the RBC Painting Competition is now on display at the National Gallery of Canada until October 22, 2017. The winner and two runners up will be announced on October 17, 2017. For those unable to view the #RBCCanadianPainting Competition finalists on display, you can also check out this 360 virtual tour of the works.

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