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The work of artist Steve Volpe now on ex­hibit at The Fo­cus Gallery

“My neigh­bour had to lie on our front lawn hold­ing a gun — a very con­vinc­ing replica hand­gun — while I took pic­tures,” he tells me. “My wife still can’t be­lieve that no one called the po­lice.”

That kind of pose is no big deal for Volpe, 50. He paints com­plex nar­ra­tives in a life­like style. To get the story and the style just right, he imag­ines, ob­serves and pho­to­graphs peo­ple, places and things.

“Some­times, a photograph it­self will trig­ger an idea. I take a lot of pic­tures of peo­ple in pub­lic set­tings, and I might see a ges­ture or a group dy­namic that trig­gers an idea for a paint­ing,” he says.

“Other times, I’ll have the idea for a nar­ra­tive first, and then use pho­to­graphs to con­struct the scene.”

Six of his oils are on show at the Fo­cus Gallery.

Volpe’s paint­ings ex­am­ine the act of look­ing, some­thing we do when we in­ter­act with his paint­ings. Two of the oils are set in an art gallery, a place we’re prob­a­bly vis­it­ing when we look at his work.

“Char­ac­ters in my paint­ings re­late to some­thing by look­ing di­rectly at it, or be­yond it, or they might turn away from it com­pletely. That’s what es­tab­lishes a ten­sion or serves as a key in­ter­pre­tive el­e­ment.”

“Air Show” puts five peo­ple in an art gallery packed with what looks like tra­di­tional works of art, in­clud­ing a sculp­ture of a clas­si­cal god­dess on the far right.

But we can’t see the paint­ings be­cause peo­ple block our view.

One of them, the guy in red on the left, ap­pears to stand dis­obe­di­ently in front of the rope that he’s sup­posed to stand be­hind. We can’t see what he’s look­ing at.

The other four are clearly not look­ing at the art. In­stead, the woman in the green jacket is point­ing to the shadow of a paper air­plane that’s just been thrown by the boy in the fore­ground.

“Air Show,” Volpe says, “is a fic­ti­tious gallery and all the work dis­played in it was cob­bled to­gether from dif­fer­ent sources. With the ex­cep­tion of the young boy, the fig­ures were taken from pho­tos of peo­ple at the Art Gallery of On­tario.”

“The Ex­change” takes place at the McMichael gallery. A woman holds a fancy mir­ror up to a se­cu­rity cam­era, as if mak­ing the watch­ers watch them­selves. She is watched in turn by a bust of Lawren Har­ris and its re­flec­tion.

In “Ar­rival and De­par­ture” we see parts of three peo­ple, sit­ting with their backs to us, look­ing out of an air­port win­dow. The woman in the cen­tre has one san­dalled foot on the ground, the other slightly raised.

She “is not only look­ing at the air­planes tak­ing off and land­ing, but her feet are mim­ick­ing them, strength­en­ing the as­so­ci­a­tion,” Volpe says.

“Look­ing can en­com­pass so much more, sym­bol­i­cally, too,” he ex­plains.

“It can im­ply search­ing, ques­tion­ing, chal­leng­ing or con­fronting.

“It’s only one part of the whole body lan­guage that I con­sider when mak­ing a paint­ing, but it might be the most im­por­tant one.”

Regina Haggo, art his­to­rian, pub­lic speaker, cu­ra­tor and for­mer pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in New Zealand, teaches at the Dun­das Val­ley School of Art. dhaggo@the spec.com

Top left: Steve Volpe, The Ex­change, oil on can­vas, 43 by 36 inches, $4,150.

Bot­tom left: Steve Volpe, Air Show, oil on can­vas, 30 by 40 inches, $4,050.


Main photo: Steve Volpe, Ar­rival and De­par­ture, oil on can­vas, 44 by 32 inches, $3,950.


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