Art Policing

The invitation card to Brian Hunter’s exhibition “Gut Feeling” at Winnipeg’s Library Gallery in May showed Hunter posed, like a Ken doll, in a t-shirt, socks and boxer shorts. On either side of his cut-out figure was a set of clothes with which he could be dressed: a painter’s smock and palette board on the right and, on the left, a policeman’s uniform complete with service belt and insignia. Hunter occupies both roles; he is an artist who won the prestigious RBC Painting Prize in 2016 and, the following year, graduated as a constable with the Winnipeg Police Service. He has set himself the assignment of finding ways to make these two identities overlap in a functionally creative way. “I thought that by becoming a police officer and an artist, I could be a bridge and that it could lead to a new dialogue.”

All the works in “Gut Feeling” reflect an aspect of his life in either of the two worlds. The painting that comes closest to depicting the co-existence of painting and policing is a 72-inch-tall oil painting on a live edge pine slab. Called Tools of two trades and painted in black and orangey-tan, it includes a palette board, brushes and tubes of paint, as well as a revolver, bullets and handcuffs. “These are my tools in both worlds,” he says, “and I’m blurring them.”

Brian Hunter, Dwelling, 2018, ceramic tile and mixed media, 80 x 70 x 80 inches. Photos: Karen Asher. Images courtesy the artist.

The piece that most fully represents the blur is an instructional video in which we see him complete a painting from beginning to end. Combining the soothing tones of a Bob Ross Joy of Painting episode and the accessible know-how of car mechanic videos, Hunter, wearing his police uniform, describes what he is doing throughout a 75-minute demonstration that “strips away any mythology” from the art of painting. The video is classic DIY; shot on an iPhone in his basement studio, he uses a hundreddollar microphone and hazy lights. The video is delightful and extremely instructive.

Permission to make it required writing a letter to the Chief of Police, arguing that the video would “present the police service as creative and sensitive, a role the public doesn’t typically see.” Hunter says his intention is to shift the viewer’s perception of what a policeman is. “Seeing a police officer make a painting changes how a figure who is tough and in authority is viewed because when you make a painting, you are vulnerable and you are doing something personal. People are going to expect it to be pretty, and it can be criticized if it isn’t. What I liked is, no matter what the end product, it is already provoking a bunch of ideas.”

Hunter emphasized the personal in his decision to make the subject of his painting a stack of field notebooks from his training period. In real life they are objects small enough to fit into his breast pocket; in his painted version they are monumental tablets that Moses could have brought down from the mountain. The painting, which is very fine, was included in the “Gut Feeling” exhibition.

Since 2015 Hunter has made the grid his signature subject. It is both a thing and a containing frame, and he continues to be interested in expanding its layered use. In his exhibition, it sometimes looked like a waffle, a cross-hatched form on a blackboard, or a shelving unit. But the grid is an especially adaptable device, and he is aware that its meaning can change as it moves from the idea of art to the reality of society. “There are paintings in the show that are just a shelf or a fence,” Hunter says, “but when a police officer paints it, it’s a jail cell. It changes the viewer’s approach to the work.” ❚

Tools of two trades, 2018, oil on pine slab, 72 x 70 inches.

Volume 37, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #147, published August 2018.

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