After graduating with his BFA in 2007, Winnipeg’s Brian Hunter worked hard to push the boundaries of traditional painting.
In early works like Sleepover, he painted the insides of old sleeping bags instead of on canvas. Later, using a large rabbit costume as a “brush,” Hunter created a huge painted surface as a performance/installation called Carpe Nightem. And for his project Support and Comfort, Hunter painted figures onto trashed mattresses and re-installed them in various public spaces.
But it’s a return to traditional painterly gestures—focusing on studio, palette, canvas and brushstroke—that Hunter has been exploring of late.
And it’s an appreciation for the worlds of possibility still available within traditional painting that won him first prize in this year’s RBC Canadian Painting Competition.
“The installations and the colourful punchiness of my previous work is not something that I feel I’ve abandoned,” Hunter tells Canadian Art. “But I wanted to explore an honest approach to painting that I feel didn’t need to be so loud and in your face. I became a bit more absorbed in just being alone in my studio and making work for myself.”
As Hunter tells Canadian Art in a new video, his winning painting is part of “a series that I’ve been exploring for the past year and a half using these little compartment pieces. This one is based off of two old letterpress boxes.”
Part of the reason for Hunter’s shift to smaller, 2-D is logistical—he had to jettison much of his larger work when he moved back home to Winnipeg from overseas a few years ago. And the letterpress boxes entered his life by happenstance when he and his wife were sorting through her grandmother’s things in Winnipeg.
But there is also a philosophical change here. In contrast to his earlier, more installation-oriented way of creating artwork, Hunter—like the letterpress boxes he has made his subject—now locates multiple spaces of possibility within smaller, stricter, more rectilinear boundaries.
“I’ve been exploring this way of working really quickly and making these very sort of quiet, somber pieces,” Hunter says. “You can see throughout the paintings I have these very fast brushstrokes.”
As Hunter notes, many things can be going on in even one representational-style painting.
“There are a lot of things happening in this piece, and in the gestures, I think I’m referencing John Hartman and the roads he does in his Canadian landscapes,” Hunter says.
Hunter also enjoys exploring a spectrum in two-dimensional painting where the imaginary and the actual can converge.
“I have been working with a couple of letterpress boxes for reference,” Hunter says, “but I have also imagined a couple, and I’ve been exploring how much reference material I need.”
Yet installation hasn’t left Hunter’s work completely, by any means. For now, he is letting the process of studio practice guide him.
“I feel like the paintings are in the early stage of development,” Hunter says. “I’m trying to think of how can push this body of work. I’ve got a couple of potential shows on the horizon, and I just want to see how the work evolves, and see if installation comes back into my practice, or if I continue to focus on that two-dimensional surface.”
For more information about the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, a partnership with Canadian Art, visit rbc.com/paintingcompetition And to tour this year’s prize exhibition virtually—including works by all 15 finalists—click here.