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Canadian Artist of the Week
LOOK AT THIS: The Strange World Of Stephen Appleby-Barr’s Paintings
December 7, 2013
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Caley Miriam Elizabeth Jones

LOOK AT THIS is a weekly series featuring the work of Canadian artists, designers and creators of all sorts.

Name: Stephen Appleby-Barr

Born: Toronto, 1981

These paintings: Imagine a painter trained in the 17th century and then transported to the 21st. Appleby-Barr makes super-detailed paintings that are as rich as their old-world counterparts, but with a mysterious and comic twist. One Toronto Star reviewer said, “It’s as though Rembrandt or Vermeer had played Dungeons & Dragons, or been obsessed by The Hobbit.” Appleby-Barr often replaces the heads of armour-clad historical figures with strange masks and helmets, or the faces of animals.

On his sense of humour: Appleby-Barr uses the dramatic works of historical artists (think Rembrandt, Goya, or 19th-century photographs) as inspiration, but drains the seriousness out of them. He told Strombo.com: “I look at the references that I use, putting together different elements of costume and setting, and think, ‘This is the cheesiest stuff — nerdtown!’ It feels silly or irksome if someone’s too serious.” (Another clue to his comic sensibility: Appleby-Barr's a member of Team Macho, a collective of artists whose mascot is a cat named Spaghetti Arm Punch-Claw, the 27 Toes of Destruction.)

What he’s reading: “I’m interested in historical fiction — history is its own kind of fiction. Books like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are ones I continually go back to for some sort of solace.”

Favourite non-artist job: Working at a kids’ bookstore in Toronto, Mabel’s Fables.

What’s next: “My paintings are going bigger, with more rich costumes and settings. A couple pieces in the last show were fairly complicated visually… so it just sort of created this whole new range for me to move in.”

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