Trompe l’oeil triumphs in the RBC Painting Competition

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15th Annual RBC Canadian Painting Competition winner Colleen Heslin stands before her painting, Almost young and wild and free. Photo © Andrew Van Beek

A Vancouver painter who likes to play with surface illusions and notions of deception is the winner of the 15th Annual RBC Canadian Painting Competition.

Colleen Heslin will receive $25,000 for her painting, Almost young and wild and free, a work in which she employs the techniques of stitchery, staining and collage to create a compelling kind of trompe l’oeil. The sumptuous painting simultaneously evokes slick photographs and tactile fabrics, body scars and rumpled sheets, while also introducing new formal possibilities.

“I rework and assemble secondhand material to explore colour, texture and form,” says Heslin, describing her creative process in the 2013 competition’s exhibition catalogue. It’s that innovative process which prompted a jury of curators, critics, gallery directors, and established artists to select her work over the submissions of more than 500 other entrants. Struck by the “freshness” of Heslin’s approach to painting, the jury described Almost young and wild and free as “moving beyond the practice of painting” and suggesting a “stepping-off point” for where the medium can go.

Indeed, the RBC Competition is often a harbinger of the future of painting. Each year, it discovers emerging Canadian artists who are making their mark on the national scene. To celebrate the competition’s 15th anniversary, RBC is awarding $115,000 in total prize money this year to 15 finalists from across the country ($25,000 for the national winner, $15,000 for the two honourable mentions and $5,000 for the other 12 finalists).

Two of those finalists are Ottawa’s Colin Muir Dorward and Toronto’s Neil Harrison. They each received an honourable mention for their respective submissions—works that seem to be situated at opposite ends of the painting spectrum, but that are equally hypnotic.

Dorward takes inspiration from the colours and forms in his immediate surroundings, yet his painting is anything but an ordinary representation. Labyrinthineon depicts a muscular, limb-like knot that seems to be pushing at the confines of a nondescript space and the canvas itself. Meanwhile, in the middle of the painting, a small hallway to another room draws the viewer in deeper to what the artist has described as “a lived reality that exists beyond ocular experience.”

Harrison has characterized his work as blurring “the line between the aesthetic and the instructive.” His painting, Fig. 13 Knowledge, depicts interconnected black lines against a raw linen canvas. Hovering somewhere between the forms of modernist abstraction and the directness of diagrams, his work is arresting in its distilled imagery and linear precision.

All the finalists’ paintings are currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada, and it’s an experience that art lovers won’t want to miss. The exhibition is a testament to the infinite possibilities that result from paint and artistic ingenuity. In addition to viewing the winners’ works up close, you’ll be able to see Sean Weisgerber’s sculptural stalactites in Vancouver to Saskatoon; Jennifer Carvalho’s eerie, cinematic-inspired painting Stair (mid, low); and Jessica Mensch’s personal interpretation of myths and memories in The Catch, as well as diverse works by other exciting young artists. Plus, you’ll be able to say you knew them when.

The RBC Canadian Painting Competition is on view at the NGC until 13 October, and will be on display at Art Toronto from 25 to 28 October.

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