How a visit to grandma's house inspired an award-winning painting

In Winnipeg painter Brian Hunter's eyes, your grandma's collection of knick knacks is a work of art. He's the winner of this year's RBC Canadian Painting Competition.

Winnipeg's Brian Hunter is the winner of this year's RBC Canadian Painting Competition

Brian Hunter. Two empty trays mounted vertically, 2015. (www.brianhunter.ca)

Moving back to your hometown isn't always easy, but for artist Brian Hunter, it's had some unexpected benefits.

In 2013, Hunter returned to Winnipeg, the city where he grew up. He and his wife wanted to be closer to their family, and while spending time with his grandmother-in-law, he found some unusual inspiration: an antique letterpress box.

Brian Hunter, seen here at work, is the winner of this year's RBC Canadian Painting Competition. (www.brianhunter.ca)

It's just an old wooden tray, a relic of the pre-Laser Jet era. But it's prompted Hunter to create an ongoing series of paintings — including the piece that won him the $25,000 grand prize at the RBC Canadian Painting Competition last week.  

Hunter's winning painting is called Two empty trays mounted vertically, and depicts just that, superficially speaking.

"My wife's grandmother had always had an old letterpress box in her living room," Hunter explains. The tray, he says, was like a makeshift curio cabinet — one that held every treasured toy and trinket that her children and grandchildren had made.

Brian Hunter. Letterpress Box #4, 2015. (www.brianhunter.ca)

"I was drawn to how sentimental it was," he says, "how personal it was." There was something about it that reminded him of how and why he paints.

"Someone's grandmother can decorate with all these little objects, and I thought, 'that's pretty similar to what a painter or an artist does,' but for whatever reason we think one is creative and deserves to be in a museum and the other is seen as kitsch or a decoration."

I feel like I'm collecting a history of my own mark making.-Brian Hunter, winner of the 2016 RBC Canadian Painting Competition

The painting shows two trays like the ones back at grandma's house, but there are no kindergarten craft projects stacked on the shelves. Instead, the compartments are both represented, and filled, with thick and muddy slashes of oil paint.

"The way that I'm applying the paint, it kind of jumps between an abstract work and also a still life — a representation of an actual object. It's full of objects," he says of the picture. "It's just less clear what they are."

Brian Hunter. Small Box with Black and White Shapes, 2015. (www.brianhunter.ca)

But the gesture behind each line also represents something deeply personal to Hunter — as full of meaning as any memento. Because of that, he sees the paintings as collections of sorts.

"I feel like I'm collecting a history of my own mark making," Hunter says.

In a statement, the jury for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition explained why the Winnipeg artist's work was selected for the annual prize. "Hunter's sophisticated work struck the jury as being both immediate and deeply considered," they wrote, "straddling a bridge between abstraction and representation in a compelling and seemingly effortless way."

Nika Fontaine. Schnell Schnell 17, 2015. (Courtesy of RBC Canadian Painting Competition)

The prize, he says, puts him in a suddenly privileged position. Back in Winnipeg, he works a day job so he can afford to paint. The $25,000 in winnings gives him the resources to continue this series, and, maybe, to think about it in a whole new way. He talks excitedly about expanding the scale of his work. (Two empty trays mounted vertically is 91 x 117 cm.)

"It'll significantly impact what I'm able to do in my practice and what I'm able to afford," he says. "Because of the way that I work, I work with a lot of thick paint and usually what sort of slows down my production is my budget. Now, it'll open the floodgates and I'm just going to pump out as many paintings as I can."

Winning was never on Hunter's mind, he says — "never in a million years." The prize, now in its 18th year, attracted 570 entries. From that group, Hunter was one of 15 finalists from across the country. And last Tuesday, a jury that included Kent Monkman, Tammi Campbell and Harold Klunder selected him and runners up Nika Fontaine and Cameron Forbes. (The latter two artists were awarded $15,000 each.)

Cameron Forbes. Maritime Plaza Hotel, Window Set 2, 2016. (Courtesy of RBC Canadian Painting Competititon)

"I've talked to a lot of my friends back in Winnipeg who have been finalists and they said, 'You know, really take advantage of this moment and get to meet all the artists.'"

"Especially being in Winnipeg, I'm kind of limited access to other artists because there's not that many people traveling through unless they really have a reason to be there," he says.

In a sense, though, the isolation of the city has also been a boon.

"Since moving back, I've focused primarily on painting," says Hunter, who works with a variety of media: sculpture, video, digital. "I think there's something about Winnipeg. We're all kind of quiet in Winnipeg, and we like to be alone in our studios, and it's cold. There's a real influence to just work on these 2D objects and not really venture anywhere else."

Brian Hunter. Bracket, 2016. (www.brianhunter.ca)

Paintings by the finalists, Hunter included, will appear at the Art Toronto art fair October 28-31.

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