Sunday, August 23, 2015

About Face, Martin Batchelor Gallery, Victoria, British Columbia, CANADA

There is a community of artists in Victoria who aren’t seen in commercial galleries, are not employed by the University of Victoria and yet have been creative workers of considerable skill in our city for many years.
Martin Batchelor’s eponymous gallery is a place to which many of them gravitate, for, unlike other galleries, his space can simply be rented by the exhibitors. Yet each year, Batchelor likes to do a bit of community outreach, to invite artists through an open call to exhibit in a themed show. This year the theme is “Selfies,” and the triple-hung show offers self-portraits by almost 100 artists.
The show has been curated by Martin Batchelor and Efren Qiroz with artist Irma Soltonavich. Though not an artist himself, Qiroz is the man behind the remarkable website With no commercial or institutional support, Qiroz has made it his personal project to record the art life of Victoria and, to date, has posted more than 1,800 videos on YouTube.
When he announced the Selfies show on Facebook, with a $10 entry fee and no jury, the results were instantaneous. And everything was hung. The opening last week was packed, testament to the solid interest the show has tapped into.
There is often resistance among artists to thematic shows, but since the theme was the artist herself or himself, everybody wanted to participate.
“At first, they swore that they never had made a portrait of themselves,” Qiroz said with a laugh, “and had never made a selfie.” Though many people disparage selfies, everyone seems to be doing it.
Many media and a wide variety of approaches are on show.
Arlene Nesbitt, a photographer, caught herself in a reflective moment amid the miscellanea that is her usual subject matter. Marion Evamy, the principal of Red Art Gallery in Oak Bay, sent in a beautiful painted panel that began as a photo on her cellphone, was Photoshopped into a schizoid vision and was then painted with her typical vivacious colours. Appropriately, her signature is spelled ME.
Odette Laroche brought three tiny oils. My favourite shows her as Cleopatra, with a diadem and a smirky grin I just can’t forget.
Another wonderful painter, the talented Dawn Pearcy, brought a superb little painting of herself (with barnacles on her shoulders, pine cones in her hair and a touch of gold leaf for flash). She also brought two others, of her in disguise! At $200 these gems are hard to resist.
Richard Motchman, whose work I have followed for at least 25 years, is an accomplished painter of faces, and for this show he made a forceful self-portrait, which, in his usual style, is set like an altarpiece behind two hinged doors. The outer and the inner man are not the same, of course.
So many artists. Angela Montanti is one I met when she was artist in residence at Monterey Elementary School in Oak Bay. Good artist, no gallery.
Another who seems in the same boat is Nicholas Vandergugten, a singularly talented linocut artist. His stunning images of the Johnson Street Bridge, seen at Bean Around the World Café years ago, are the defining image of that structure. Rumour has it he is preparing another show soon.
In my tour of the room, I noted my tendency to favour the representational portraits over the many and varied expressive abstractions that stood in for a face. Jesi Barron is a senior citizen but her “selfie” is a vigorous oil in the traditional representational style, and perfectly portrays this well-loved artist. It occurred to me that a strong selection could be made from this show if we ever decide to create a local version of the National Portrait Gallery.
The finest of all is surely Dale Roberts’ felted portrait of himself as Mailarta, the mail art queen. You might expect that his very personal imagery and unusual medium would make it hard for him to find an audience, but Roberts has been working at a high level as an artist, apparently undeterred by thoughts of what some audience might require.
He communicates joyously through the mail with thousands of people worldwide. While his medium of felting — fibres coloured and matted together, and embellished with a bit of needlework in this case — may be a hard sell in the cutthroat gallery world, Roberts works with love and finesse.
Roberts’ self-portrait (in a mail carrier’s hat) stands out in a strong field. If there was any justice in such things (which there isn’t, by the way) this piece would be purchased by the City of Victoria as an important component of its gallery of notable citizens.

“Selfies” — self-portraits at the Martin Batchelor Gallery, 712 Cormorant St., 250-385-7919, open Monday to Saturday, until Aug. 27.

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"Dame Mailarta"
Needle felted wool
16" x 18"