WHAT IT IS:
Untitled #41 by Karel Funk, now on view at Plug In ICA as part of Maps & Legends, the second instalment of the gallery's massive My Winnipeg megashow.
WHAT IT MEANS:
This meticulous acrylic-on-board painting may reference the heritage of portraiture, but it's a portrait of an unusual kind. Looking at a young man in a blue parka, we get a hyper-detailed, hyper-realistic view of the parka but not much sense of the person inside.
Funk is exploring the paradox of contemporary urban contact, which can be such a curious mixture of intimacy and alienation. In crowded elevators, packed buses or long queues, we can be physically very close to someone without having any real social interaction.
In the 16th century, Renaissance portraitists would paint the sheen of velvet, the hard glint of jewelry and the frothy delicacy of lace. This careful visual realism in clothing, jewelry and props helped to convey the prosperity and power of the subject while handily showing off the talents of the artist.
Funk makes Gore-Tex into the 21st-century equivalent of ermine. He imbues high-tech microfibre with gorgeously complex whorls of shadow and light and picks out nylon stitching with the studied patience of Hans Holbein. Built up with dozens of worked-over layers of almost translucent paint, his pieces tap into the centuries-old tradition of representational painting.
There's something very contemporary, however, about the way Funk both offers and withholds information. Essentially life-sized, the young man in the parka is standing right next to us, but we see only his back, which gives just the subtlest suggestions of posture and attitude. There is something eerily impermeable about that blue parka.
The 41-year-old Funk has always approached his subjects obliquely. In earlier works, they are positioned at odd angles; they look away or close their eyes. The closeup clarity of his style reveals almost more than we feel we ought to see of their stubble and small scars. But whatever is underneath -- what might have been viewed during the Renaissance as moral character, or in the 19th-century Romantic period as soul, or in the 20th century as psychological angst -- is held deliberately in reserve.
WHY IT MATTERS:
Since graduating from the University of Manitoba and living and working for a period in New York, Funk has been making a name internationally. These hooded figures might be read in different ways in different places. In the U.K., conservative thinkers who subscribe to the "Broken Britain" theory often talk about "Hoodies" -- a pejorative term for the disenfranchised young men seen as a threat to social order.
In the United States, pricey Patagonia and North Face parkas and windbreakers have become status symbols, often worn by people who will never face down the kind of weather conditions for which the coats were originally designed.
Here in Winnipeg, though, the hooded parka is neither menace nor social marker but a practical fusion of form and function. As the Plug In press release ruefully suggests, the parka is our city's "unofficial eight-month uniform." So whatever we see in Funk's starkly mysterious Untitled #41, we can see probably see something of ourselves.