THERE'S no "right" way to make a painting, but Jessica Evans and Patrick Klassen do their best to do it wrong.
Piss Performance, their exhibition at Prespace Gallery, challenges some of our most basic, most reasonable assumptions about how paintings should be made and shown. The work is "difficult" the way an unco-operative three-year-old is difficult: impertinent and uncompromising, it teeters between transcendent goofiness and unaccountable malice with occasional, startling flashes of left-field insight.
Prespace Gallery is just the entranceway of C Space on Ross Avenue. Half of the former loading dock is unfinished cinderblock, the other half particle board and exposed studs. The lighting is terrible, but the ambience is right. Both recent University of Manitoba graduates, it's fair to assume Evans and Klassen know what they're doing, but each approaches painting as if they'd only heard about it second-hand, possibly while recovering from head injuries.
In Klassen's sports-themed constructions, the canvases are left mostly blank, serving as marionette stages for a series of roughly carved and painted wooden figures. His distinct painterly quirk is to only gesso areas he intends to paint (instead of the entire surface, the way a normal person would do). Oil stains and haloes of white primer peek out from behind globs of colour applied directly from the tube.
Tangible markers of success hang over scenes of the athletes in their glory. A basketball player shoots the ball over a giant contract (a scrap of canvas duct-taped to the surface of the painting). A skier speeds down a hill beneath a looming row of gold medals. With titles like "superstar status" and "unbelievable composure," the works poke fun at materialistic striving while casually indulging in the fantasy.
Their faux-naif esthetic and endearing dumbness belie disarmingly complex formal relationships, however. In team first mentality, a whittled football player makes a pass to his much smaller, two-dimensional teammate. Life-size dollar bills flutter midair (duct-taped again) while a row of painted cheerleaders high-kicks along the sidelines.
By contrast, Evans explores more nuanced, more threatening subjects in her work, pushing the informal approach to materials even further. In Nick, Rothkoesque deep-purple spills saturate two scraps of cardboard that spread open like butterfly wings or leaves in an illuminated manuscript. A red mesh bag holding two polished granite eggs hangs from behind the painting like a dangling pair of testicles.
Clusters of small canvases feature fragments of text pulled from Twitter and Instagram: "Booty is a weakness," "Body is a hell," and a crude, anatomically impossible sexual proposition. On closer inspection, Evans didn't even unwrap the store-bought canvases before painting on them, and she's nailed them directly to the exposed studs, right through the plastic.
Out of context, the clipped, affectless pronouncements strike a weirdly philosophical tone, betraying anxieties around the body, sex and physicality. That same ambivalence is reflected in Evans' own hostile approach to painting, and in works like Nick, which contrasts heaviness and lightness, hardness and vulnerability, "high art" and actual garbage.
One gets the impression Evans and Klassen would rather die than look like they were trying too hard. The show's surface sarcasm and unvarnished esthetics won't appeal to everybody, but it's subtler than it lets on and worth taking seriously. The two do everything wrong and somehow make it work.
Piss Performance closes Aug. 15.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.