Eastside Culture Crawl: Getting back to the brushes

At this year’s Eastside Culture Crawl, a strong contingent of painters is wielding oils and acrylics in exciting new ways.

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      Imagine an old industrial building, brownish and dull on the outside, teeming with vibrant beauty on the inside, like a stony cave housing the most brilliant crystals. This is the feeling you get from Vancouver’s 1000 Parker Street Studios, a factory-esque conglomerate of studios that a variety of local artists have made their creative hive.

      Instead of dusty cars parked in the garages, there are mysterious horse statues waiting to charge. Instead of the walls inside being whitewashed to blank oblivion, they’re adorned with cheeky cartoons, graffiti, and posters. And the staircases, otherwise drab and worn, are sprinkled haphazardly with gold glitter—hinting at some kind of magic at work.

      One thousand Parker Street is the largest of the many spaces featured in this year’s 17th annual Eastside Culture Crawl, the giant local visual-arts, design, and crafts studio tour that takes over much of the neighbourhood. And although it showcases a kaleidoscopic range of media, from the digital to the sculptural, the festival is seeing a resurgence of painting in this new cultural era.

      Alongside modernist sculpture and conceptual art and design is more traditional painting, such as the magical surrealism of Liane Varnam, the grittily beautiful urban landscapes of Thompson Brennan, and the dreamlike shadow play of Galen Felde. And while Varnam, Brennan, and Felde all agree that no art medium should lord over another, they each speak to the intrinsic power and energy that their centuries-old art form alone holds for them as artists.

      “For me, painting is more of an emotional experience, and I think that’s why people are attracted to it again,” says Varnam, sipping tea from a quaint gilded teacup, surrounded by her vivid, quirky paintings in her 1000 Parker studio. “It’s intuitive. It’s almost like you put your own energy into a painting. For instance, I didn’t like [Vincent] Van Gogh’s work when I saw it on paper, but when I saw it in person, it was like he was screaming at me through the paint.”

      At age two or three, the soft-spoken Varnam started her artistic career by grinding stones for pigments and creating sculptures with clay from the ditch by her family home. Eventually, she put art-making on the back burner to study animal science and zoology at university.

      “Then my grandmother passed, and I thought, ‘Life’s too short—you really have to do what you feel passion for,’ so I came back and went to art school.” She whispers, “And I was so, so happy.”

      Now, animals and anthropomorphic creatures pop up constantly in her work, in narratives that are brightly tinted with her eccentric sense of humour, often punctuated with puns. For example, in Spotted Dick and the Dixie Chicks, an irreverently classical portrait of chickens and a dog eating ice cream, Varnam painted the pooch wearing a ruff—a play on the medical pet cone known as the Elizabethan collar. All of her work seems to be a whimsical twist on old artistic tropes.

      “A lot of people I went to school with went on to become famous installation artists, and almost all of them left behind the traditional media that we had been learning,” says Varnam of her contemporaries. “I felt that art had moved from what an artist had to say more towards how they were saying it. It became more intellectual. To me, it’s funny. Like, if you had asked Van Gogh to write an artist statement for a show, and you would only get the art if you read his statement, that just seems ridiculous.”

      She laughs, but grows thoughtful again, adding: “In new media, there’s an emotional disconnect. I appreciate modern art, but I feel like with the hands-on, there is no emotional disconnect, because there’s not much between me and what I’m making. And there is a shift happening now. It’s like rediscovering your mom’s closet and going, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool.’ Like fashion, art is cyclical.”

      ALSO LOCATED AT 1000 Parker, the extraordinarily candid Thompson Brennan has been drawing and painting professionally since 1972. Throughout his extensive artistic career, he’s dabbled in almost every medium there is, even welding weapons into sculptures during one hyperpolitical phase. And as the art world churned through its cycles, so did Brennan. But painting is his constant anchor. He compares the resurgence of traditional painting to the so-called comeback of vinyl records.

      “There is a tyranny of photography and electronic media in the arts right now, and there may be a shift happening as a counter to the digital revolution—as an understanding that the digital world has its drawbacks,” says Brennan, patting the shaggy mane of his lumbering dog, Jazz. “Painting is more tactile. It has depth. A painting does not work unless you have a conversation with it. And I think people want conversation, human contact, something real that makes us feel. I like to see the artist’s hand in something, and photography has a barrier, for me.”

      Gesturing grandly with his hands, he goes on: “The digital world is an ocean, and it’s powerful. It has its rip currents, it’s washed over us now, and this is my way of swimming. Doing painting connects me to the world. The issue for painting is, how does it stay relevant? But I think, for me, it stays relevant in the person. And then maybe that changes somebody else because they see it.”

      Brennan attempts to stay personally relevant by never limiting himself in his creative process, sometimes using his hands, trowels, and sticks to paint, or spraying paint at the canvas, and loving the “primal” aspect of the work. He has also begun to look more outward for aesthetic inspiration.

      Hence his latest series, “Dirty Pretty”, which celebrates the surprising glimpses of gritty beauty that can be stumbled upon in a weathered, decaying urban landscape—for example, the bold contrast between eroding blue paint and the textured orange wood beneath in Leaning Door, or the multilayered pastiche of graffiti tags on a stained wall or dumpster in Dirty Pretty 2. This is traditional artwork with a strikingly contemporary perspective. In Brennan’s words, “I’m just holding up a mirror and saying, ‘This is what I see, and I see some beauty in it every day.’”

      USING HER WORK as a means to stay connected to her urban and natural landscape, Galen Felde paints darkly ethereal vignettes of what she refers to as “reconstructed memories”, or the half-obscured images in the background of a scene, rather than the foreground. Through layers of feathered acrylic texturing and several transparent washes on wood or canvas, pieces like those in the series “Sonnet for Lost Pine”, or the work J Street Apparition, recall the ethereal shadow play of unfocused light sifting through trees and mist.

      “I’ve spent most of my life moving between urban and natural settings, and elements of both worlds are always negotiating with one another on my canvases,” says Felde, wearing a paint-splattered smock and auburn pigtails. “Exploring empathy, impermanence, origins, adaptation and alteration of landscape—these are the core things that fuel my work. I try to convey tension and chaos, and many of my pieces try to locate the moment in the centre of a transition. A lot of my work is a homage to nature.”

      Felde’s pearly white brick studio, located at 339 Railway Street, is enchanting as soon as you enter the room, with a window view of Vancouver’s twinkling industrial cityscape, framed drawings of a pink superhero and a “haunted owl” (done by her niece and nephew, respectively), a purposely tacky synthetic Christmas tree, and a fireplace crackling soothingly in the corner. The tree is topped with a piece of buttered toast. A Johann Sebastian Bach cello suite plays in the background, occasionally interrupted by the guitarist downstairs, unwittingly jamming with the composer’s ghost.

      The cello suite is Felde’s “standard accompaniment” when she works, partly due to the fact that her mother is a professional violinist who encouraged Felde to pursue art as a full-time profession. Before Felde committed herself fully to painting, she was a musician and contemporary dancer, but, as she says, “I always saw myself standing in front of an easel.

      “I loved dance, but it was more of a struggle for me,” she adds. “With painting I found a freedom that I didn’t with anything else. As a physical medium, it’s really limitless. And I actually really enjoy a dialogue between media, but painting is the one that fits me perfectly. Painting is an electric and instant thing. You experience it with all your senses. And sometimes you want to not have to plug in and wait for someone else to give you permission to make art, whether it’s the Internet or Photoshop or whatever.”

      Perhaps fittingly for the topic at hand, a photograph of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster peers at us from Felde’s computer desktop: a juxtaposition of old and new, classic and contemporary, but above all it’s art.

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