I’m privileged to enter one of the many unmarked studio spaces with their large windows over storefronts in the somewhat run down Victorian buildings on Water St. I always feel honoured to be invited into the inner sanctum of an artist’s studio. Sometimes the spaces are messy with pictures and objects of all sorts deemed to inspire the process; other times nothing but big empty white walls provide a blank slate. Paolo Fortin’s studio is of the blank slate variety.
When I arrive, he tells me a ceiling leak has destroyed a number of major canvases. They are rolled up and mould has foxed the fabric. A huge loss. But it could be a blessing in disguise he tells me, something to spur him in a new direction, although you can’t rush the process. Like a badge of honour, he says almost gleefully, he joins the ranks of a legion of now famous artists who paid a similar price for cheap studio space.
Although the digital world allows us to view almost anything 24-7, there is nothing that quite replaces seeing original artwork in real-time. Several of Fortin’s large and smaller oils on paper are mounted on the walls and a large canvas stands in the hall. The work is spare, clean, neutral, under- rather than over-worked, detached but never clinical. He leaves room in the paintings for the viewer to superimpose their own memories, project their own story. His self-restraint pays off – every painting I see is outstanding.
What I like about Paolo Fortin’s work is that it forces me to step back inside myself. It takes away the crutches. It has breathing room. It is the antithesis of precious. Its generous helping of negative space pushes the outside world away. It’s like a door that I walk through and everything changes. It reminds me that a good painter must be utterly fearless yet never completely satisfied.
I first came across Fortin’s large, airy oil on paper called Wires at the Art Gallery of Peterborough’s 2012 Triennial. Like that of one of his influences, Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, his work is irreconcilable. Like every artist, he sometimes wonders if there is a point to his work. He admits to being self-critical. Fortin sets the bar very high but he also champions other artists from the international community.
Although Fortin was born and raised in Peterborough, there’s a pleasant mystique about him.
Schooled at the Maine College of Art as well as OCAD and NSCAD, he was leaning more towards sculptural work in wood, but began painting when he moved to a small apartment in Vancouver. The neighbours didn’t appreciate the sound of his hammering. He didn’t find his own voice until he took a residency in Bergen, Norway, one in a series of residencies in Banff, Trinidad, Iceland, Newfoundland, Long Island, Utah and Spain. I get the feeling that it is not wanderlust or discontent that has taken him around the world, but curiosity. His residencies have not only matured him as a painter, but given him a sophisticated education in European and North American culture, and even a glimpse into the backrooms of the high end art market. Too much travel though, and the lines start to blur, he tells me. Fortunately for us, he has settled back in Peterborough for the foreseeable future.
Tucked away on a side street in the Avenues in a heritage house is the unassuming Evans Contemporary, occupying 2 rooms on the ground floor. It is respectfully named after the original owner of the house, a professional lather. As sole coordinator, Fortin aims simply to bring some of the best, off-the-radar international contemporary art to Peterborough. He bristles at the word ‘curator’. “The artist does all the work,” he says. Neither non-profit nor solely a commercial gallery, Fortin doesn’t so much break as ignores the rules. Nicely designed catalogues of some of the shows are available and visiting artists also have an opportunity to experience some of our Electric City music and culture. One of the most compelling exhibits last year was Andreas Rutkauskas‘ video Oil! depicting the early low-tech extraction technology of Canada’s first oil discoveries in Lampton County. This autumn, the gallery will feature 3 exciting artists from the U.S. The season kicks off on September 5th, 2013 with Chicago based painter Isak Applin, followed by conceptual ceramic artist Stephanie Rozene, and Christopher Patch who works in print, collage and sculpture. This is artwork you likely won’t find even in Toronto or Montreal.
If there is a playlist I’d like to subscribe to, I think it’s the one Fortin listens to on the long road trips he takes to visit his partner who works in the Northwest Territories. His musical interests range from Chet Baker to Hernan Cattaneo to Denise Gantt. They call this musical enterprise Barcino Sants, and an EP is in the works.and are leading him to a new venture – a collaboration of his own electronica compositions with recent Evans Contemporary artist-in-residence, poet and playwright
Fortin is substantially elevating this community on so many levels. Get ready to see some well-selected artwork with an international sensibility this year at Evans Contemporary. And here’s my advice to art collectors out there: make sure you add a Paolo Fortin to your collection soon, before a pack of hungry international art dealers snaps them all up.
Images of Paolo Fortin paintings are copyrighted, and used with permission. The terms of the permission do not include third party use.