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Terence Dick
Stephen Appleby-Barr at Nicholas Metivier Gallery
October 18, 2017

Stephen Appleby-Barr is moving to London. This isn’t surprising. He must be hard pressed to find art that is old and European enough to inspire his own old European paintings here in Toronto. This city is too young and fresh faced. The buildings don’t carry the weight of centuries. There aren’t walls that date back to a previous millennium. That kind of history can only be felt in the cobblestones of a city like Berlin, where he spent last year working on the crop of paintings, etchings, and sculptures currently on display at Nicholas Metivier Gallery.

Stephen Appleby-Barr, View of Corvidae, Two Riders, 2017, oil on paper

European cities also provide access to a greater selection of Old Masters whose eye for sublime backgrounds and regal figures is echoed Appleby-Barr’s surreal aristocracy posing before illuminated clouds of indiscernible origin. There is, in fact, nothing contemporary about his work. This is not a criticism, but an observation. He’s an aficionado of the past, but evokes it with a sometimes dreamlike, sometimes simply playful twist that makes him more than just an aesthetic contrarian like Odd Nerdrum. Rather than replicating a historical past, his paintings capture a past vision of the past. There is a “dress-up party” quality to his posed figures – particularly those without human heads – that place them in the realm of make-believe. His old world is a product of his imagination and has grown over the years to take on a life of its own.

Stephen Appleby-Barr, The Prince, 2017, clay, wire and wood

The gallerist mentions a book titled Gnomes and I’m instantly thrust back to the seventies, curled up on a couch and pouring over the detailed drawings that describe the physiology and habits of these fantastical creatures with the precision of a naturalist. It was one of those strange books that seemed to be in every parent’s collection. Appleby-Barr has joined the ranks of these inventors of entire societies who combine ancient civilizations of our past with imagined races a couple degrees removed from what’s possible. His portrait Nicholas could be a character from Game of Thrones, but all the others are far too dandyish to survive in that world. The battles they partake in might never happen, occupied as they are with proud displays that suggest only a modicum of menace. Some of the paintings – like the puppet-headed portraits of the protagonist called Scutifer – are slightly creepy, but they’re never nightmarish. Instead, there’s an innocence to them reminiscent of children’s stories from less modern times.

Appleby-Barr fetishizes an earlier era’s fascination with an even older past, like mid-century Tolkein immersed in a time before recorded history. The appeal of such an era is its promise of escape, however temporary, from the burdens of the present. There is romance and adventure back then, and only banal drudgery now. The fantastical past lacks the criticality we’ve come to expect from contemporary art; our current climate demands it, but this exhibition engages instead the imagination in spades. The smaller landscape paintings included amongst the full-scale portraits are the most inviting example of this. Hidden beyond their fogbound horizons are the fields of reinvention. They provide the setting and the cast of characters has been established, so all that’s left is for the story to begin.

Stephen Appleby-Barr: Corvidae continues until October 28.
Nicholas Metivier Gallery:
The gallery is not accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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