Grotesque Beauty

Written by Joe Bendik on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

It was an unusual scene at the Derek Eller Gallery during the April 10 opening reception of André Ethier’s Heading South exhibition. A weird vibe was in the air. I had no idea what to expect since the advance press was pretty sparse. It turned out to be a nice surprise. I saw dozens of exhibitions all week, but this is the one that stuck in my mind.

Toronto-based artist André Ethier’s exhibition deals with the grotesque, the pastoral, the decadent and the psychedelic. In one painting, Eithier effortlessly combines a human-like portrait with a floral arrangement—along with cigarette butts. In other portraits, Ethier paints human/animal hybrids that somehow make perfect sense. Ethier’s paintings aren’t pretty; rather, they exude their own sense of beauty. The richness of the reds, along with the precision of his brushstrokes provide a balance for the somewhat unsettling images. Mind you, I’m using the term “unsettling” in a positive way.

His dense, saturated color schemes set the stage for what is both playful and ominous at the same time. Vivid and expressive brushstrokes create individually constructed layers. The raw painting goes through a glazing process (at the time of creation). This encapsulates the moment and magnifies it.

Ethier draws on ecclectic historical elements. Among them is the influence of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th century painter. Arcimboldo’s paintings of portrait heads—which solely consisted of flowers, vegetables, fruits, fish and books—come to mind. Ethier’s works can also be linked to Emil Nolde, one of the pioneers of the Expressionists. When comparing Ethier to Nolde, the similarities of the energetic brushstrokes, the floral influences and the sense of luminosity are uncanny. The vivacious energy also contrasts with the somber material; the realist aligns with the surrealist: These are the borderline parameters in Ethiers art.

Viewing Ethier’s paintings is like watching the act of creativity unfold before one’s eyes. This is largely due to Etheir’s method of spontaneity. He approaches each painting with no preconceived idea and told me that if he painted in the traditional way, he would risk over-thinking his ideas. He relishes in the tradeoff between the quest for infinite perfection (which can never be attained) and pure expression. It doesn’t hurt to have the chops and the historical background to give everything added weight.

In an improvisational fashion, Etheir constructs his works in a relatively short period of time. He might have one or two intense five-hour sessions, but after this labor, the painting is finished—never to be edited or re-painted.

One more thing of note about this exhibition: Sometimes the way that the gallery administers the refreshments can also set the tone. A table was placed right in the middle of the gallery that had margaritas laid out. Now, this might seem trivial, but the generosity extended to the paintings—and somehow, the potent tequila—was the perfect adjunct to viewing these works. This enhanced the hallucinatory palette on which Ethier is working. As I said before, this show stuck in my mind.

Through May 16 at Derek Eller Gallery, 615 W. 27th St. (betw. 11th & 12th Aves.), 212-206-6411; Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.