GO REGINA HAGGO
WATCHING THE WATCHERS
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.