As I entered the exhibit room at the Royal Ontario Museum I was overcome with a heavy sense of serenity and calm that usually suggests being inside of a museum. Maybe it is due to the epic proportions of the square footage of the room mixed with the induced and encouraged silence. Upon entering The Kingston Prize exhibit room I found an example of this notion as a man was slumped in one of the provided black leather club chairs having what appeared to be a cozy little nap. Little did he know he would soon be awakened by the scampering of small children in educational groups running through the exhibit from one door to the next exclaiming candid and hilarious things like, “This is art, we aren’t here for art!” and “Ew, look, she’s naked in that picture.”
Brief disturbances aside, the room was empty for the most part. The dark grey walls, covered in famous related quotations, is the temporary home to the thirty works of art from The Kingston Prize finalists themselves. The Kingston Prize is a national portrait competition for contemporary portraits of Canadians illustrated by Canadians. The competition started in Gananoque, Ontario, in 2005 with only 150 entries. The mission statement for the competition is as follows, “To encourage and reward the creation of contemporary portraits by Canadian artists, through a biennial national competition for paintings and drawings. The monetary prize provides encouragement for artists to develop new approaches to portraiture.”
And ‘new approaches’ is definitely correct. To my surprise (and relief) not every portrait in the collection was oil on canvas. Not every portrait was framed. Some portraits were comprised of six mini portraits. The sizes of the works of art ranged from one portrait taking up almost an entire wall, floor to ceiling, and the smallest being roughly the size of a small pack of cigarettes. Some portraits, like Portrait of James by Janine Hall and Aladdin by Richard Thomas Davis were very realistic and could be mistaken for prints of photographs. It was not until I walked within an inch of my nose touching the painting itself that I realized that it was, in fact, a painting.
The winner of this year’s Kingston Prize, receiving $20 000, was Kingston’s very own Michael Bayne with his extremely realistic oil on wood piece called Orange Grandma. Bayne was able to recreate every line, shadow and shade of colour to a tee in his portrait, making the relatively small image resemble that of an actual photo. His caption for the photo reads as follows:
Stylistically, I have no desire to glorify or idealize my chosen subjects. While historically the portrait may have attempted to heroicize the sitter, I favour the frankness of style more common to the passport or driver’s licence photograph. Snapshot-like in its lack of ornamentation and poetry, its formulation has a certain minimal, studied beauty. Theoretically, I think this raises questions like, what does it mean when the end product of a labour-intensive craft has the look of a mass-produced object?
As I walked around the exhibit room, reading each photo caption and examining each piece of art–both with my eyes and my Nikon D5000 lens–one question kept popping into my head: Why did the artist choose to portray this Canadian, Orange Grandma? Initially I thought The Kingston Prize focus was solely on the Canadian portrayed in the portrait. After reading the captions of each image it occurred to me that the importance of this contest is solely based on the creative and artistic talents of the artists themselves. These human beings that will be forever immortalized as a piece of art submitted to The Kingston Prize are not famous Canadians; they are mothers, brothers, fathers, daughters, wives, grandmothers, husbands and sons. They are everyday people just like you and me. Having this little “epiphany” made me realize one important thing about The Kingston Prize exhibit: some of the most interesting and influential pieces of art can be interpreted and influenced by the little things in our everyday lives. Onlookers tend to be captivated and intrigued by pieces that hit close to home more than anything else, and The Kingston Prize is a prime example of this.