Friday, March 16, 2007

Michelle Stamp's Portraits at RCA

Newfoundland celebrities are like herpes. Always there. No cure. I’ve always thought the incredible number of them was due to a kind of nationalism that exists here; that we feel the need to produce stars in this province to rival what goes on in Canada and America. Call it a cultural inferiority complex.

Once upon a time, I’d never heard of Joel Hynes. I’d never heard of the Novaks. Who the hell was Ed Kavanaugh? The name Paddy Daly had absolutely no meaning for me. I had a fuzzy recollection of Gerald Squires, who, for some reason, lived in a lighthouse for a while.

Even the CODCO crowd were a dimly lit pantheon who I vaguely remembered my parents finding outrageously entertaining.

Halifax has its own constellation of locals who, for various reasons, garner a kind of celebrity of their own: Joel Plaskett, Buck 65, the Trailer Park Boys, and others. In the six years I spent there in art school and bartending, I cannot think of a single time when any of the numerous local luminaries were featured in any way in a visual art exhibition.

Six years, people.

Six years and not once in all that time did any of the local galleries have a show entitled anything close to Portraits of a Bunch of People I Know Whom You Also Know Because, Hey, They’re Celebs, At Least Around Here, That Is.

But it’s a curious thing that in the last year in St. John’s there have been no fewer than four exhibitions based solely on the allure of the ­local celebrity. Kent Barrett, Cathia Finkel, Eastern Edge gallery’s Click! fundraiser, and now Michele Stamp’s graphite drawings at the Resource Centre for the Arts gallery.

I sometimes wonder if—like in a conceptual piece—local artists and audiences wouldn’t be better served by simply having celebrities’ names printed out and framed instead of having the artist go through the trouble of composing the image. That way, you could just read Paddy Daly’s name and then picture him with your mind’s eye, hosting his television show or whatever, chatting away in that most charming, downhome, Newfoundland accent of his.


Stamp’s show features 32 portraits of different people, some well-known, others less so. They are all delicately rendered, verging on preciousness sometimes. They are of similar size and all in staid black rectangular frames. The line quality is the type that my drawing instructors would have had serious problems with. That is, they would have had her work on a much larger scale, with charcoal or pen and ink, and ordered her to really attack the page. This generally imbues a given work with a lot more life and vibrancy.

As it is, some of the works feel cramped, others lifeless. You get the impression that Stamp was holding back, or that she was afraid to make a mistake. Dynamic drawings are those that have a full range of tonal values, with areas of intense darkness and light playing off the medium tones to produce an engaging interpretation of how light reflects off a given surface. A lot of this work is too preoccupied with the medium tones for my liking.

That being said, Stamp definitely has a gift for rendering, as the subjects do indeed look like themselves. My favourite was of Glen Tilley, noted CBC Radio producer, who gets more handsome with each passing day and possesses the most charmingly cowboy moustache I’ve ever seen. Meow! You’re a lucky woman, Mrs. Tilley.

This show ranks near the top of exhibitions in the relatively tiny canon of art about Newfoundland celebrities, if you go in for such things. However, when you’re there, you may begin to ask yourself, as I did, why the dominant areas of focus for Newfoundland visual artists tend to be limited to landscape painting and local celebrity portraiture.

As a visiting friend from Winnipeg recently demonstrated with her question, Who the hell are these people?—shows such as these have an extremely limited appeal. You’ve gotta be from here to get it. And considering that the province’s acclaimed writers and theatre artists rarely make their work explicitly about real live local celebrities, you’ve got to wonder what is wrong with visual artists for them to be so caught up with the local celebs they know.

I mean, who cares already?