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Men at Work at La Petite Mort Gallery

By Diane Bond on March 27, 2012

For the first time, award-winning Toronto artist Esther Simmonds-MacAdam has brought her paintings to Ottawa. The series, entitled New Paintings: Men at Work, is being shown at La Petite Mort Gallery until Thursday and is comprised of a grouping of large-scale oil paintings depicting intimate moments with men.

Working from a background in sociology and cultural studies, Simmonds-MacAdam is interested in aspects of male vulnerability as they relate to contemporary notions of figure painting. But you don’t need a degree in Fine Art to appreciate this work – and there is no question that Simmonds-MacAdam is capable of rendering figures through paint, despite having no formal fine art training. Her loose style, confident brushstrokes, and intense play with colour attract and compel us to take a closer look behind the surface.

“I love colour,” she says, as we meet over coffee before her vernissage. “It can be powerful, if the light is tangible, there can be a warmth and humanness to it that I want.” Simmonds-MacAdam’s painting practice has evolved out of a response to the works of the Old Master’s, where the male figure was typically positioned as authoritative, powerful, and inaccessible. The Men at Work series is a culmination of her interest both in subverting this relationship, as well as developing and exploring her strengths as a painter.

“I was painting men, for practice,” she says. “To learn how to paint better. The two things kept building on each other. As I was studying all of these paintings of men – and the history of world painting is informing all of this visual culture now – I started to feel more like communicating through painting.”

Using a technique she calls wet-in-wet (or wet-on-wet), Simmonds-MacAdam describes the process of building up each canvas with layers of paint. “I start with a thin wash of ochre and mineral spirits, washed on, which leaves a wet sheen. Then I put the marks into it, of a higher density, so it sits in the wet layer and drips. What I like is the wetness drips around each mark, and I have to move quickly. So the painting gets built in a ‘path.’”

And who are the men at work Simmonds-MacAdam is interested in painting? Usually random people she meets on the street – construction workers, window washers… “I look for men who allow me to photograph what they are doing,” she says. “A lot of images in pop culture of men are either aggressive and confrontational, or extremely homoerotic, nubile — modeled after the female nude. There is a place for that, for sure. But I wanted another thing, another version. That’s who I’ve ended up seeking out.”

You still have a few days to catch New Paintings: Men at Work at La Petite Mort Gallery (until March 29). Paintings and Drawings by Hayden Menzies is also on display (until April 1).