Visual Art

A Portrait of the Artist’s Studio

Where contemporary masterpieces are born

Text by Kyle Carsten Wyatt

Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Photographs courtesy of the Stephen Bulger Gallery (Toronto) Stephen Appleby-Barr, 2013 An illustrator by training, Appleby-Barr works in a dimly lit space in Toronto. Along with Team Macho, a collective he helped found, he’s long straddled the line between applied and fine art. On one side is his effortless directness. On the other, his universe of rabbits in Victorian suits and much-too-young Napoleonic dragoons.

The creative class spends much of its life in studios of one kind or another. Recording studios. Yoga and dance studios. Production and animation studios. Some of us live in studio apartments. Others remember the debauchery of Studio 54. Since entering the English language around 1800, the word studio has grown steadily in popularity. But as its usage expands, its meaning is cheapened. The photographs here ask us to roll up our yoga mats and to forget Andy Warhol’s star-studded Factory. They ask us instead to ponder contemporary artist studios—in the purest sense of the word.

Way back when, we borrowed studio from the Italian studiolo, which was itself borrowed from the Latin studium or studere, meaning “to contemplate.” Applied to fine art, the word refers to a private space—one that, according to Leonardo da Vinci, should be small and free from distraction. Throughout the Renaissance, the solitude of the studiolo differed from the hustle and bustle of the shared bottega, or workshop.

Maarten van Heemskerck’s St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (ca. 1532) and Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (ca. 1668) offer early looks inside the studio, where we find the isolated master at work. Vermeer’s painter, in particular, does not know that we gaze voyeuristically upon him and his masterpiece-in-progress. Centuries later, we remain fascinated by laboratories of genius.

Joseph Hartman began this ongoing photo series in 2013, carrying his second-hand West German Linhof four-by-five camera into the inner sanctums of Canadian artists. They are absent, but we nonetheless feel their presence, sense their process, appreciate their talismans. Hartman’s camera sits at eye level, which lets us look upon Stephen Appleby-Barr’s cluttered tabletop and marvel at William Fisk’s clinically clean floor. We know that Pierre Dorion keeps his space as tidy as the museums he paints, and we come to understand the meticulous grid system Charles Bierk uses to create photorealistic portraits. Shelley Adler’s red chair cradles a lifelong preoccupation with faces, and the trees outside Katharine Harvey’s windows offer a juxtaposition to Wild Ride IV White.

The outlier here is Kent Monkman’s skylit space in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. On one side of the room, his assistants prepare canvasses and paint backgrounds. On the other, Monkman puts the finishing touches on Love and Expelling the Vices—filling in the details and signing his name. Is this more of a studiolo or a bottega? Hartman seems to ask us. Are we to celebrate the twenty-first-century artist for his vision or for his execution?

The studio is a place where one can go and think quietly, the photographer says of his work. Hartman may shoot the white-walled boxes that foster Mara Korkola’s No Place series and help Kim Dorland realize his “extreme paintings”—with heaps of oil held in place by screws. Yet it’s clear Hartman’s fascination lies not with what’s on the walls, but with the contemplative solitudes they contain.

This gallery of Canadian contemporary art is made possible by TD Bank Group.

Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Pierre Dorion, 2015 The Montreal artist paints minimalist snippets of architecture in a clean, controlled environment. He skilfully suffuses seemingly banal spaces with a powerful sense of loss.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Shelley Adler, 2013 Born in Edmonton and trained in Toronto, Edinburgh, and Boston, Adler started showing work in 1994. Years of perseverance have informed her beautiful style and deft execution. Her portraits, packed with subtlety and life, exude ease.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Kim Dorland, 2013 Though he was born in the small town of Wainwright, Alberta, Dorland peppers his work with images of suburban decay: neglected campers, rusted Monte Carlos, and tagged railway bridges. He loves impasto—thick furrows of paint that rise off the canvas. His palette is sharp and lends a disquieting quality to scraggly birch stands and long-haired teenagers, even as transformative light seeps down from the moon or orange sun.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
William Fisk, 2013 The artist’s easel holds paintings that resemble photographs. Made in a pristine environment, they hold your eye because of their precision. The objects seem suspended in a dream—every highlight and edge made ever so slightly rounder or sharper than the real thing.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Katharine Harvey, 2014 Take a little Seurat, add a little Duchamp, and extend the concept as far as it will go. Harvey shows the results can be mesmerizing. She has built kinetic colour sculptures and made 3-D lenticular photos. But her paintings—built from lozenge-shaped pixels, cascades of water, and trails of light—best capture her brilliance.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Charles Bierk, 2013 His father and brothers can paint like Vermeer, and so can he. Bierk eschews philosophic postmodernism for direct, riveting portraiture. His works are based on photographs of his friends, which he lovingly enlarges. By repainting and rethinking each detail, he abstracts them—catapulting his subjects into what can best be described as parallel universes.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Janet Werner, 2015 Her paintings look as if they’re from catalogues and fashion magazines shoved into a world that’s part Goya, part magic realism. Werner’s bodies bloat, shrink, and fold. Her women are dejected and thrilled. They sink and swim in imaginative brush strokes.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Kent Monkman, 2014 Like Appleby-Barr, Monkman studied illustration. But he achieved fame with his painting and his alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. In his wry critiques of the Hudson River School, he gives us sweeping landscapes dotted with tiny figures, entranced not with virgin territory but with one another. In doing so, Monkman targets his absurdist wit on Wild West mythologies of the Other.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Mara Korkola, 2013 Trees, buildings, and machines—but not humans—fill Korkola’s landscapes. In a tiny Toronto studio, she assembles forest scenes with as few strokes and colours as possible. The effect is one of diffuse light, but light that is true to the world the artist sees.
Photograph by Joseph Hartman
Joseph Hartman, 2015 Hartman realized he wanted to be an artist the night before he was about to start medical school. Self-taught, he has worked with the photographer Edward Burtynsky in Toronto since 2005. Hartman’s own studio is on the second floor of the Cotton Factory, a former textile building, in Hamilton, Ontario.

This appeared in the November 2015 issue.

Joseph Hartman (josephhartman.ca) has work in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Quadrangle Architects, and TD Canada Trust.

Kyle Carsten Wyatt is a former managing editor of The Walrus.

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