Skew Gallery’s new show features three new(ish) heavyweights on the Calgary scene

Skew Gallery’s second version of its biannual group exhibition features three local up-and-coming painters soon to hit international audiences. “Merge 2” coincides with three current merging behaviours I should point out. The first is that the opening night was a busy one due to Sled Island festivities and artsy types were populating venues across town. Even Emily Barnett Skew’s director sent me a BlackBerry message after the show saying “I will e-mail you in the morning. Right now I am Sled Islanding!” The second merging point to mention is the diversity of the public coming out to art shows. Thanks to exhibitions at commercial galleries offering engaging curatorial themes to Factory Parties and shows at smaller venues kids and their parents are circulating within the art scene. Thirdly and most topical is the merging of conceptual roots in all three of the featured artists’ works which deal with appearances belonging or rejection superficial fronts and the underlying structure of the figure.

Emily Carr University of Art + Design graduate Erik Olson recently returned to painting portraits after two years of studying landscape and infrastructure in northern Alberta and Honduras. He enjoys the limitations of the smaller format and sensing more innately the conceptual and formal scope of portrait paintings. Although the brushwork is quick and bold the description of features within the broad and blurry strokes is precise and photographically believable down to the most telling details of expression.

The decision to smear or direct a line within the painted surface is rooted in Olson’s awareness of the architectural structures or “the geometry of expression [which] leads to the completed painting.” The solid lines and brush marks coming out of the angles of the faces also merge with the environment behind the figure indicating some of their outward looking thoughts or incoming influences.

Each of Olson’s four portraits in the show exhibits a different emotion or gaze behind the eyes of his 19-year-old subjects. The figure in New image staring back at me has a penetrating knowing and seductive look while Nik has been smeared across the eyes to indicate a stoned or inward-focused expression. More paintings in this series of portraits “inspired by a resurfacing idealism of contemporary youth culture” have appeared in the notorious aforementioned Factory Parties.

Tia Halliday’s work offers the most narrative take on the subject of appearance and role-playing in the show. The delicately executed ink paintings on paper hover over the back layer of the small white frames. They depict a naked woman wrestling or tangled in chairs pushing into upright mattresses and drooping with blank notes taped to her body.

Two paintings Kara the Hippie and Thin to Thick are more traditional portraits of the faces of young stylish but awkward girls. Again studying the structure of a face the paper has been cut and arranged in thin layers where nose and eyebrow meet cheek and cheeks meet the lips and lower jaw. Like a puppet or paper doll the face is divided or cut into sections as if a less desirable T-zone or chin could be removed repositioned or overlooked.

The subjects seem acutely self-aware behind their social masks — hopelessly unattractive appearances with mascara-laden uneven eyes peering out.

In her ongoing research into the physical presence and disturbing proximities within her art Kim Neudorf focuses on close-up large-scale portraits of stereotypically grotesque faces with humorously exaggerated or dwarfed features. Neudorf seems to favour the curly-haired large-nostrilled and dark eye-socketed souls as she investigates “a physical empathy” — not with who the person really is but with their purely physical aberrations. She says they are not quite self-portraits although they explore her own attractions and repulsions towards certain facial features.

Looking at the paintings from only a few inches away you can’t make out the eyes and lips that pulled you in from a distance. Up close the surface becomes a wall of thin paint washes and finger marks that suggest multiple orifices and bulges amidst a tangled terrain.

Halliday Neudorf and Olson agree that when communities welcome the diversity of local art practices it opens up inclusive and supportive spaces for individuals. For this reason it’s encouraging to see youngsters hipsters and scenesters out at the art events and engaged in art that forays into the sensitive subject-matter of appearances and social acceptance. Comparing Montreal (where she completed her master’s degree) to Calgary Halliday says “In a climate of more diversity I feel that regional thrusts of contemporary art become less homogeneous more spread out and willing to take more conceptual and material risks.”

Merge 2 is definitely a step in that direction.