Toronto – Narwhal Art Projects
Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto, October 29–November 29, 2009
Even from the sidewalk outside of Narwhal Art Projects’ Queen Street West gallery, we can tell we are entering the fantastical, complex world of Stephen Appleby-Barr’s The Invisible College. Framed within the gallery’s large picture window is an austere white plaster bust of a young boy, immaculately dressed in a breasted blazer, who has been draped in a swath of red velvet and outﬁtted with a mysterious black dunce cap and Appleby-Barr’s trademark bandit mask. Frighteningly anonymous, yet strangely whimsical, the young boy seems the ideal ﬁgurehead for the painter’s ﬁctional guild of sixteenth-century European philosophers: an unnamed and esoteric society from which Appleby-Barr draws the cast of characters depicted in his highly detailed oil portraits.
Though Appleby-Barr employs many of the now-clichéd representational strategies—animal heads on human ﬁgures being one of the most obvious—which ﬁrst came to prominence through the work of Marcel Dzama and the Royal Art Lodge, his use of seemingly outmoded tropes from oil -portraiture and his deft skill at photorealistic representation sets his work apart from other DIY-inspired, “outsider” artists. Earnestness and sincerity trump hipster irony in Appleby-Barr’s practice, lending his portraits a refreshing playfulness.
Comprised of eighteen paintings, each framed in identical darkly stained wood frames and hung at eye level in a continuous line, The Invisible College marks Appleby-Barr’s second solo exhibition with the gallery and only the second year the artist has worked in the medium. Despite being new to oil painting, Appleby-Barr’s work is remarkably nuanced. His palette of smoldering burgundies, rich chocolates and deep indigoes draw the viewer in, compelling us to closely inspect his subjects’ richly detailed, elaborate costumes. Whereas his previous work largely dealt with small-scale, full-length portraits of friends and anonymous ﬁctional characters, in The Invisible College Appleby-Barr has begun to experiment with a larger format, including three-quarter length, close-up portraits of iconic art world ﬁgures such as musician Owen Pallett (poised for high tea) and artist Shary Boyle (dressed as Governor General).
Appleby-Barr is at his best, however, when he probes the darker, surrealist underbelly of his secret society. The two most compelling images of the series hang side by side in a corner of the gallery. In Neon Rider, a male ﬁgure borrowed from the stable of the illustration collective Team Macho (of which Appleby-Barr is a member) sits calmly, facing the viewer, sporting an eerie leather mask outﬁtted with bullhorns. Next to him hangs The Trial, a Kafkaesque history painting of a courtroom where a ﬁgure in a white mask and top hat is being put on trial by a group of stern bureaucrats. Together, the images call up the isolating and exclusionary effects that are invariably linked to the constitution of intimate or secret communities, adding a rich complexity to Appleby-Barr’s ﬁctional artistic legacy.
Image: Stephen Appleby-Barr, The Invisible College (detail), 2009. photo : GStab, courtesy Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto