For no good reason, I haven’t written much about the Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay. The gallery isn’t given over to solo exhibitions and the artists it shows are not big on intellectualizing. The work is more likely to find a place in a lovely home than an art institution. But the talent is obvious and, on occasion, irresistible. And many of the artists, whose work I have been watching for years, have never been mentioned in this column. Today, I make amends.
Blu Smith: A name among names. Working with oil on large canvases, Smith rings the changes of what paint can do. Typically, he begins with broad washes and textures, then scumbles and brushes on his signature shapes, finally resolving some small portions of the surface with incisive drawing. The results are glowing organic abstractions.
Angela Morgan: I discovered her work at Fran Willis Gallery years ago. She builds shimmering grounds of colour with a broad, flat brush and from this draws out whimsical people. Her button-nosed kiddies in rainboots with umbrellas are best known.
Robert Elphinstone: This painter is new to me. He whips up oil paint into a froth and then moulds it into swirling shapes, revealing like Van Gogh the underlying patterns of which our landscapes are made. He seems to be channelling every chapter of Canadian art history (Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Paul Emile Borduas) in his vigourous and rambunctious paintings.
Bi Yuan Cheng: Here is an artist with so much talent, training and tradition that he makes most artists look like amateurs. Atop a graduated tonal ground, he draws landscape elements with a calligraphic flair reminiscent of Robert Genn. I stand in awe of his colour sense. Yet there is a dangerous glibness to his work. Can an artist be too good?
Deborah Tilby: On a small scale, she works with an adept painterly realism that is certainly museum quality. I’ve known of her work for more than 20 years, first as a master of the English watercolour and now as a fine oil painter. What will it take for this talented traditionalist to receive the encouragement of appropriate recognition?
Some have already received my praise, including Ron Parker (now painting landscapes with oil paint) and Catherine Moffat, whose passion for still life continues unabated.
Gordon Hutchens of Denman Island, long one of the top potters in the country, is represented by Avenue. Bill Boyd of Galiano is a potter whose work I first noticed in the Stephen Lowe Gallery more than 10 years ago. He specializes in high-fired ceramics with zinc silicate crystallization within the glazes, a striking effect a bit like frost on a window pane. Jo Ludwig works with dichroic glass hemispheres. His things of beauty dazzle with iridescent colour of such beauty that more complex shapes are unnecessary. Glass by Naoko Takenouchi, whom I first discovered at the late, lamented Starfish Glassworks, is also in the vitrines at Avenue Gallery.
Douglas Fisher is an artist beyond category. In general terms, he is a wood turner, for he works with wood on a lathe. He’s willing to accept wormholes and other aberrations and carves low-relief designs derived from “indigenous iconography,” often making reference to Northwest Coast native formline patterns narrowly avoiding cultural appropriation. He continues his design process with inscribed lines and stains. A unique and accomplished artist.
Nicola Prinsen of Saltspring Island tells tales by sculpting long-eared hares in bronze. She’s not afraid to be narrative and uses plates of glass and patinated colours to express her ideas. Michael Hermesh is another narrative sculptor working in clay and bronze, creating people in an elongated form. He offers paragraphs of thoughts to go with his groupings, which illustrate “the dignity and quiet heroism of people.”
Pat Bennett of Saltspring Island sculpts small forms from exotic woods and uses them as starting points for her “sculptural vessels,” which are non-functional baskets of large scale. The designs of dyed reeds make this basketry as a form for creative expression.
There’s more. I admit that I am not attuned to silversmithing and jewelry, art forms that are abundant at Avenue Gallery. Among many, I note Kevin Cremin, whose cast silver ginkgo leaves and silver and gold dragonflies are exquisite, even more so when adorned with coloured gemstones. Finally, consider Gail Stefanek’s carved gemstones. Small and sinuous, her tiny sculptures are made from topaz and ultramarine, set in silver and sure to become heirlooms of the future.
All that — and much more — in one gallery. You’ll need more than one visit.
The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Ave., 250-598-2184.