Going Out Exhibit A: Different Strokes

Gary Michael Dault
Friday October 13, 2006
Courtesy of The Globe & Mail

by Nicole Collins

Opens tomorrow, to Nov. 11 at Wynick/Tuck Gallery,
401 Richmond St. W., Suite 128, 416-504-8716

I'm talking to Nicole Collins in the coffee shop across the hall from the Wynick/Tuck Gallery, where the Toronto-based painter is readying her new exhibition, Stroke for Stroke, which opens tomorrow afternoon.

I'm trying to decide whether to be discreet and deliberately not notice the tiny, cunning tattoo she has on her right hand, or ask her about it. It's on the little web of flesh between her thumb and forefinger, and from upside down, it looks sort of like a bird's feather. I do ask her about it. "It's both a flame," she tells me, "and a brushstroke. I got it on my 40th birthday, and what it says is, 'You can keep painting.' "

And so she has. The body of work making up Stroke by Stroke, however, is quite markedly different from anything Collins has shown before. For one thing, it is solidly bound by procedural rules -- albeit self-imposed rules.

The exhibition, which took eight months to complete, is made up of 16 canvases in all, four in each of the sizes she prefers to work with (54-inch squares, 36-inch squares, 18-inch squares and 12-inch squares). Collins has long painted with encaustic -- a very demanding medium by which each of the oil pigments she wants to use must be suspended (essentially "cooked") in a pool of molten, micro-crystalline wax (she uses electric frying pans because they keep the temperature constant) and applied to the canvas hot. The first thing she did with the 16 canvases was to cover them all equally with four coats of clear wax. Then, when they were dry and hard, she scored into the waxy surfaces a grid of 16 squares (rubbing black oil paint into the incised lines to make them visible). After which she worked out, on sheets of frosted Mylar, the disposition of the short horizontal and vertical strokes of each of 16 encaustic colours she chose for the paintings -- and their eventual order of appearance on the freshly waxed canvases.

The sequence would start, she decided, with cadmium yellow light, would work through several more yellows (cadmium yellow middle and cadmium yellow deep), modulate into the reds and lavenders and blues and greens, and end with some greys and a particularly satisfying, dense, charcoal black.

"The thing is," Collins tells me excitedly, "all 16 paintings were simultaneously generated. There is no first painting! They were all painted up together!" Which is why One. 16.16, illustrated here, looks pretty much like the other 15 paintings. Pretty much.

But how did the paintings get painted? At the rate of one colour per day, per painting, until they were all completed. On day one, for example, she painted all 16 of her spatially predetermined canvases with the waxy strokes of the first colour -- cadmium yellow light, painted vertically. On day two, she went back and painted all 16 canvases with the second colour, cadmium yellow middle -- but (by rotating the canvas) with the strokes at 90 degrees to the strokes of the day before. On day three, a third colour and a third shift in direction. On day four . . . well, you get the idea.

By day 16, all 16 paintings were covered with the same number of strokes of all 16 colours. "I actually needed one more day -- a 17th -- for one more rotation of that beautiful dense black," Collins confesses. "The colours really don't exist without that black!" I know what she means. The black really pops them out and causes them to wink intensely out from behind the final black grid.

So here's the thing: If all 16 of Collins's paintings in Stroke for Stroke are (except for their sizes) the same painting, why are they so deeply enjoyable to look at, one after the other? Why are they not boring they way you'd expect them to be? Because they're all different. Different in their detailing, different in the lengths and shapes and pressure of the strokes. The givens are the same for each one, but the human difference engine, which is Nicole Collins herself, cannot but give each painting a subtle and sometimes profound uniqueness. "And you know," Collins tells me excitedly, "making these paintings was, paradoxically, the freest experience I ever had!"

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