Competitive Painting with Art Battle

On 7 May, Art Battle came to Montreal. At an Art Battle event, painters are pitted against each other in a 20-minute showdown. The audience vote for their favourite and a victor is crowned. Art happening it is, orthodox it ain’t.

Live competitive painting is as simple in concept as it is in execution: Take a dozen artists, give them 20 minutes to paint a canvas. Sell booze. Invite spectators to vote for the best.

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To high art aficionados, it might seem a little perverse. But for the more than 300 artists who have already participated and the thousands of spectators who have flocked to venues across the country, Art Battle is a refreshing alternative to stuffy art galleries and their hyper-exclusive micro-cultures.

“The predominant idea in art is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that each person has an individual relationship with the particular artwork,” explains co-founder Simon Plashkes in the green room of La Sala Rosa, where Art Battle #53 is taking place. “I’m not saying that’s not true. But what’s also true is the community perspective.”

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Amidst the flurry of activity in the backroom, where organizers are dishing out bottled water and sorting through left over palettes, Plashkes is waxing poetic about the event’s success: “Rather than saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we say that not all art is created equal.”

And there it is, the essence of Art Battle.

Art Battle was launched in 2009 by friends Simon Plashkes and Chris Pemberton. The original Art Battle was meant to be a sideshow for a speaker series they had organized (during the interview, the first thing Plashkes tells me is that “there are better things to do than watch TV.” I didn’t follow up, but I suspect these two spend a lot of time inventing better things to do). The sideshow ended up becoming the main attraction.

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As its popularity grew, they added more contestants and started hosting editions outside their home base of Toronto. They began touring the country and in 2012 they brought together the best artists from each battle for the National Championships. Next year they plan on being in every major city in Canada and hosting monthly and quarterly events. And the whole thing is profitable, to boot.

For Art Battle #53, the Montreal edition, 12 artists competed: Andrew Davis, Jacqueline Milner, Sharon Epic, David McKenzie, Mary Morrison, Jessie Kravitz. Anita Kot, Kate Puxley, Natasha Henderson, Bridget Driver, Kevin Pinvidic and Miss Yad.

The artists are divided into two groups of six to compete in two preliminary knockout rounds. Two winners are chosen by the audience from each round to advance to the final. The audience votes again and a winner is chosen.

Art Battle 2Andrew Davies and Maery Morrison won the first round and advanced to the final. Davies specializes in oil painting. Morrison’s craft was honed in illustration and design but she has since moved to ink – as in, tattooing.

When asked what it’s like to paint in a competition in front of a crowd, Morrison replied, “It’s terrifying. It’s like life but it’s intensified into 20 minutes. It’s kind of a roller coaster, I’m still sweaty.”

All of the participating artists I spoke to were enthusiastic about the event. The consensus was that the participatory element of Art Battle is what makes it. As taxidermy artist Kate Puxley explained, “It democratizes art, it erases the whole idea of commercialism, galleries and middlemen. And you’re supporting emerging artists.”

So just what can you expect from 20 minutes of high stakes acrylic painting? It runs the gamut. Jacqueline Milner went for a minimalist grey abstract piece, brightened with a few impasto dabs of red. Natasha Henderson, the second round finalist alongside Kate Puxley, painted impressionistic birds in pastel hues. With many circular swipes of her palette knife, Bridget Driver covered her canvas in layers of what resembled blue glossy vinyl records. David McKenzie, champion of Art Battle #17, channeled Donnie Darko with his rendering of a sinister-looking skull.

In the end, it was Kate Puxley who was crowned the evening’s victor. For her artworks, she revisited her portraiture roots. Her first painting was of a woman done in the style of Picasso’s Blue Period, and in the final round she painted a man with a likeness to Lenin. Puxley, who has participated in two prior Art Battles, was ebullient about her achievement: “I want to roll around in paint!” she exclaimed after the announcement was made.

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She was not alone in her enthusiasm. There was an unmistakable buzz to the room that happens with live performances. And that’s saying something, considering that part of this performance meant watching paint dry.

Art Battle is a fun time. It can be serious if you want it to be, but there’s also booze and a colour commentator. If you get the chance to attend, just remember to follow the rules: “We try to get everyone to walk in circles because then everyone gets to see the paintings,” explained Plashkes.

When’s the last time you got to walk circles around the competition without having to compete? Take that, competitive sports.


Photo Credit: Mohamed Hamad

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