The difference between hearing and listening at the Richmond Art Gallery

Photo courtesy of Stephane Bernard.

Painters today are faced with over 100 years’ worth of modernist experiments in painting on a flat canvas. For that reason, a select few have come to reinvent this millennial artistic practice through a change in process. In other words, by rethinking the act of painting itself, artists are producing new works that infringe on media usually considered as separate art forms, such as sculpture, video, and installation. Even the canvas as a support can be made to disappear entirely.

And this is where the central comparison of the Richmond Arts Gallery’s Close Listening exhibition comes from: the difference between hearing and listening. From an auditory standpoint, it is the same as the distinction between applying a coat of paint to a surface for decorative purposes and creating a work of art. In my opinion, if an artist isn’t challenging how the painting is being done by changing things up, they’re not paying close enough attention.

The trouble with painting in the present day, when compared to the difficulties of the past, is often a question of medium. I mean, why continue painting when photography, video, and the rise of hand-held digital devices now offer a multitude of easy ways to capture and share the world around you? Of course, this is simplifying things a bit, but it is essentially the dilemma that was faced by painters after the appearance of the camera at the end of the 19th century.

Photo courtesy of Stephane Bernard.
Photo courtesy of Stephane Bernard.

Artists of the day were scrambling to reinvent painting as a means of economical survival; one could argue that such movements as impressionism, cubism, and expressionism were born from a simple need to represent the human form in new and innovative ways. Likewise, abstraction appeared in Western painting around the same time, which is no mere coincidence; it’s because the presentation of shape, form, colour and line offered a visual language that was unique from the reproduction of images by novel technologies.

Luckily, a number of painters are pushing the art form beyond the picture plane, and Close Listening, curated by Ola Wlusek of the Ottawa Art Gallery, brings together four of the best-known Canadian artists pushing these boundaries to the Richmond Art Gallery.

The first to be presented in the space is Eli Bornowsky. Having been widely exhibited in Vancouver, his large-format diptychs can appear somewhat familiar, though several smaller wooden pieces from 2013 breach the third dimension with the addition of coloured spheres. Punctuating this same space are works by New York-based Monique Mouton, oil paintings rendered on biomorphicly shaped wooden panels.

Just a bit further off, the work of Vancouver resident Jeremy Hof can be seen. In this case, layered coats of acrylic paint are excavated to lay bare the technicoloured strata of the medium. As such, both painstaking addition and judicious subtraction play a key role in the final work.

Lastly, the circular gallery space houses several pieces by Korean-born Jinny Yu, who now calls Ottawa home. Appropriating lengths of mirror, sheets of aluminum, or large industrial counter tops into the vocabulary of painting is no easy task, yet Yu’s works presented offer a formal consistency that speaks for itself.

Suffice it to say that the exhibition deals with painting from a conceptual point of view. At the risk of creating a show that is overly intimidating to casual art fans, the curator has selected an accessible number of abstract works that clearly survey the creative concerns of attentive painters in the present day.   

Close Listening is at the Richmond Art Gallery from January 31 to March 29. For more information, visit