Who wins the art awards?

Time allergy, Patrick Cruz

The winner of this year’s RBC Canadian Painting Competition, Patrick Cruz, was the source of much discussion during our recent VISA field trip to Vancouver. The question everyone was asking was “why this painting?”. Some people were in a state of disbelief to discover that a painting they didn’t like, could win this prestigious award with a cash value of $25,000. “How could this painting win out of 600 submissions?” was the constant refrain. I think people might confuse the award system, whether in visual art, literature, or even the iconic Academy Awards, as a definitive declaration of the “best” work in the designated field covered by the award. However we live in a time where the best in any field can rarely be found in a definitive singular work.

It is quite possible, and most likely probable, that the award-winning work, Time allergy, is not the “best” painting in Canada. Cruz’s somewhat modest painting is relatively small (seems about 18 x 24″) and appears at first glance to be simple and decorative. Cruz happened to be in attendance during our visit to the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG), so we learned this was the third time that he applied for the RBC award. So the first answer to the question “who wins art awards?”: people who apply for them. Artists I know often complain about not getting their work exhibited, and yet their answer to the question, “have you applied for any exhibitions?”, is usually a resounding “no”.  The second answer to “why this work?” lies in the fact that the jury for the RBC competition is made up of nine jurors, three for each region (East, Central and West). Here is information from the RBC press release on how the selection was made: “After an elaborate discussion over the past two days, among 15 ambitious and wildly diverse paintings, the jury has selected Patrick Cruz as the winner of the competition based on his decidedly contemporary attitude towards painting. His brave approach, maximalist aesthetic, and wild graphic sensibility, sets a provocative tone for emerging art in Canada in 2015.”

The painting refers in part to Cruz’s Filipino heritage in terms of the decorative elements and colour (he moved from the Phillipines to Canada when he was 18), but he also spoke about his deliberate attempt to create patterns that cannot be located in a specific culture. We can look at the Cruz work and see influences as broad as Panamanian mola designs and Australian Aboriginal dot pantings, and graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as historical artists such as Joseph Stella and Stuart Davis, and contemporary abstract painting influences such Mark Grotjahn and Laura Owens. So what might appear to be a quick “one-off”, actually has a rich heritage in craft, as well as historical and contemporary work.

During Cruz’s impromptu and heartfelt artist talk, he revealed that the piece wasn’t one he necessarily thought of as a great work of art; it was a canvas that he painted over many times as if trying to figure out what the painting on its surface should be. He spoke about about the work as if it was an “aside”; a work that was made in-between other things. Often in life our “asides” can suddenly become the main event, such as the casual friend who becomes a life partner; the volunteer stint that becomes a career or the thrown-together soup that becomes a gastronomic delight. As Laura Owens mentions in her video , success often comes when you are not trying to make good art. A problem  often arises when we are too earnestly focused on making “the best artwork ever’. Our best work sometimes happens when we stop trying so hard. So the next time you look at an art award winner and wonder why them?, remember they probably made many “asides”  as part of their practice with the goal of having a half a dozen successful works, and more importantly, they won because they applied.

Patrick Cruz,  Yin Yang Temple (Helen Pitt Gallery)

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