AGO Art Battle National Championships

The night started well. It was great to see that the organizers of this year’s Art Battle National Championship took the thunderdome theme to heart: Sixteen painters walk in, and only one can be crowned champion. The music was pumping, the lighting was dramatic, and the hosts had their energy levels dialed to eleven. It promised to be a powerful event, and the Art Gallery of Ontario Weston Family Learning Centre studio was the perfect mix of glam and gore. It had all the trappings of an underground art fight club, and I kind of hoped someone would utter the words, “we don’t talk about Art Battle.”

But let’s break that rule that I just made up. Art Battle is described as “live competitive painting,” where painters create the best work they possibly can in 20 minutes. At this incarnation, there were 8 easels set up, and 3 rounds. Each round is 20 minutes long, and audience members vote on their favourite piece once the round is over. The first round comprised of an interesting mix of homage to greats like Tom Thompson or Vincent Van Gogh, alongside original works. Honestly though, some of the work looked like it was fished out of a first year OCAD class, but given the constraints of time, material (acrylic only, and standardized brushes and palette knives, though someone did use a screen-printing squeegee), and pressure, the competitors showed how they made it to the national championships. It wasn’t easy deciding a favourite, but I eventually settled on an encaustic-ish figure painted by Doug Belding. The top three would move onto the final round, and all the pieces would be sold through an evening-long silent auction.

The next round played out in much the same fashion, except this time the works were a bit more interesting. One of the pitfalls of the event was the voting process. At the end of the first round, the audience was given about 15 to 20 minutes to vote. To vote, you are expected to walk around the easels set up in the middle of the floor and really “look” and appreciate each work’s merits. This was all but impossible to do with the throngs of people, refusing to give way to other voters. It was a bit of a mess. When it came time to vote in the second round, I decided to step out for a smoke to let the masses clear out with time. And then I missed it. I think I would have voted for last year’s champ Yared Nigussu, but my inability to exercise my democratic rights left my vote squandered.

As the third round began, I got restless. I looked at the work up for auction, and decided that I had to out-hipster the hipsters. Enough was enough. I had gone through the rigors of art school, and seen work like this torn apart for being precisely what it is. It was a festival for “Sunday” painters, and maybe I was expecting too much from it. They did hype it up quite a bit, but being a populous event, I probably should have known better. Great art would not be made tonight, but fun wall-hangings certainly were.

I didn’t stay to the bitter end. I have no idea who was crowned champion. But that’s incredibly ok. This event was not for me, nor was it for any art critic who takes the form as seriously as I do. It is illustrative that in previous years, the Art Battle National Championships took place at the Great Hall on Queen. This was not a night for Art (with an utterly unabashed capital A); it was a night for celebration, fun, and an eclectic living room piece with a “story.” The AGO was an interesting venue choice, and it speaks to Toronto’s Fine Art standby’s search for relevancy. This pseudo-underground programming can only help a gallery that is only now courting young professionals with First Thursdays. There is no reason to eschew fun from Art Galleries.

When I get off my high horse and pull that stick out of my butt (yes, it was pretty uncomfortable trotting into town), all I can say is that the Art Battle was fun. It was good. It was interesting. It may not showcase the best that Canadian Art can offer, but it was a fun way to pass an evening. It was a great night for the AGO and Art Battle Canada, and I hope to attend again next year. It was cathartic, fast-paced, and full of energy. Tyler Durden would be proud, except for the whole talking-about-it part.

Article by Brian Joe

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