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Nicole Collins: Gifts from Italy

General Hardware, Toronto May 21 to June 21, 2014

The Toronto painter Nicole Collins is a master of texture and materiality. Both go hand in hand with her preferred medium, which is encaustic paint—where wax carries the pigment and bonds it to the surface in surprising, visceral ways. Over the years, she’s been a colourist, but more recently the encaustic has been black and the paintings serious and monumental in their impact.

In her new exhibition “untethered,” Collins changes up the game. Black is still present, but it is in dialogue with a series of white and brown works that sometimes literally lift from the wall. For the most part, the paintings give up conventional stretcher support. We look at wax-encrusted pieces of burlap—sometimes presented front side out, sometimes mysteriously reversed—that cohere in shingled arrangements which play havoc with the idea of surface.

Each of the works functions as a kind of draped body that holds a history of the weight of the paint and the reactive elasticity of the loosely woven fabric. They sag and curl and buckle and drop hanging threads in a kind of agony of constructive entropy. This is painting incorporated as a rumination on aging and mortality, and it is no accident that part of the prompt for the work was a recent Collins sojourn in Italy, during which time she supervised OCADU’s Florence Program. Religious and historical referents run rampant through an otherwise firmly secular exercise in abstraction.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a series of smaller paintings that are nothing more than paint-encrusted objects from the studio. Registering as objects first, paintings second, they generate not only a philosophical meta-lift to the proceedings (what is a painting but a paint-encrusted object?) but also suggest the idea that every work in the show is its own kind of relic. These relics read as proofs of life and testaments to suffering within an arena of loose-limbed, free creativity—deep stuff for a painter who, on the basis of modest-sized, attractive earlier works, was often thought mostly a friendly colourist.

The new show puts that notion definitively to rest. Collins is a thinker and a poet with her chosen waxy means. Her pictures carry the heft of life lessons and shared cultural history. This is paint acting out in richly reflective adulthood.

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