Tributary Art: A Conversation with Andre Ethier

In 2007 artist André Ethier, former lead singer of the Toronto-based indie band The Deadly Snakes and now a solo performer, painted an Untitled work showing a fleshy, dirty blonde entangled in the fluffy embrace of a cigarette-smoking owl. Perched on a tree branch, he cuts a fine figure, his cheeks round as small apples and his talons painted red as a strumpet’s. The woman, in contrast, is a mess. Other than calf-high stockings and a pair of earrings that look like chunks of watermelon rind, she is naked. Her face shows signs of exertion and the creases on her ample body are reddened, as if she were struggling to be in a painting by François Boucher. The painting she actually belongs to, as it turns out, is Peter Paul Rubens’s Leda and the Swan (1598-1600). Ethier has taken from Rubens the disposition of Leda’s body, the way her left leg is raised in the air, and the helpless hang of her left arm, but he seems to have modelled his Leda less on his Baroque forebear than on the lead singer of Hole. If his painting had a name, it would be Courtney and the Owl.

Ethier’s riff on this feathery tale of abduction is rare, in that he tends not to borrow directly from art history and its narratives. He does, though, wear his tributary heart on his sleeve for critics to peck at. He freely takes ideas and styles from a plethora of sources, including rock and heavy metal posters, gnome and troll culture, the cartoon sensibility of Robert Crumb and Philip Guston, the overheated palette of the French Symbolists, the hallucinatory brushwork of van Gogh, and the compositional oddities of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He is the painter as magpie, picking up as many shiny things as he can and bringing them back to his painterly nest where they get used and abused …

The following interview was conducted by phone in Toronto on June 18, 2009.

**Border Crossings: What hooked you first, music or art? **

André Ethier: I would say definitely art, and from a very young age. I was always drawing. In grade school there would be one or two people in a class who could draw and I was one of those guys. Then I went to a performing arts high school that also had a visual arts program. It was only in my teenage years that I started playing guitar and getting into music.

Do you do preliminary drawings?

Never. I don’t want to feel like a draftsman or a technician. I don’t want to have already done the drawing and then try to reproduce it as a painting. That’s also why I have so many failed paintings. Sometimes I don’t get the composition, but when I do get it right I feel it’s richer than if I’d designed it prior. There’s still inspiration because it’s revealing itself to me as I’m doing it. I think, “This is special because I wasn’t in complete control of it.”

**Your works rarely have titles. Is that a way of protecting yourself against them being read as narratives? **

Yes. I find that as soon as you give a title to a painting you take away its impact. It gets defined by the title and that becomes a limitation …

See issue 111 to read the entire interview!

Volume 28, Number 3: Paint

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #111, published August 2009.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.