Brian Harvey is a contemporary Toronto artist, currently residing and working in the city. He has training from Seneca College, Sheridan College, Toronto School of Art, the Art Centre at Central Technical School, and has completed a BFA from OCAD University. He has been painting and exhibiting for over a decade and his work can be found in public and private collections across Canada, the United States and Europe.
Q: What is your process behind one of your pieces, and how do you decide on a particular street scene, that grabs you enough to paint it?
My source photos are often gathered from my daily meanderings through the city. I try to shoot away when I see interesting patterns of light or arrangements of shapes, colours and textures that evoke a particular feeling or mood for me. When I’m back in the studio I spend a lot of time going through these photos, cropping them in different ways to find compositions that strike me, and bring me back to that moment and place. Often I will remove or combine elements from different images. Once I’ve settled on something I jump in with the paint. I like to work fast and revel in the physicality of the paint, moving it around and building it up, wiping away, constantly reworking and modifying the painting. I aim for an appearance of realism from a distance that dissolves into layers of mark making when looked at up close.
Q: “Façade” means the “front”, but can also refer to a mask or a fake cover. Can you talk to me about some of the connotations for your exhibition’s title?
I’ve always been intrigued with the pastiche of old Toronto’s streetscape. Layers of additions and modifications to buildings over generations give the older parts of the city a distinctly disorderly character. It’s in this surface where you can start to make out some of the different purposes a particular building has been used for over time, and its current function is sometimes indistinguishable. Often stores become homes and vice versa and the building changes, building up and revealing layers of history, very much like the process of a painting. You never really know what’s hiding under the surface of these layers, and it’s difficult to tell sometimes what these building are being used for, both now and in the past. These layers of the façade are fascinating to me.
Q: As a fellow Toronto native, we have seen the progression of the city: the revitalization of some neighbourhoods, the gentrification of others, and the constant change of architecture and how space is used. What are your thoughts on this changing landscape of Toronto? What commentary are you making within your work, on some of these themes?
I grew up just outside of Toronto and my fascination with the downtown landscape coincided with my time learning to draw and paint at a downtown Toronto art school. I learned to paint from direct observation and so my everyday surroundings became my subjects, including the city. My interest in painting Toronto only increased over the years and has kept pace with my interest in its history. In beginning to research the various neighbourhoods I’ve lived in and explored, I started to realize just how much the landscape had changed over time, sometimes rapidly, sometimes very slowly, and how much of old Toronto was lost or irrevocably changed. Watching the rapid transformation happening today motivates me to try and capture facets of Toronto tied to the past before they’re gone. A city is a constantly changing and evolving organism. Change is inevitable and should, in some ways, be embraced; but it’s also important to notice and remember how things were so that they’re not lost to the collective consciousness.
Q: In your artist statement you explain that you have a “strong response to things which are connected to the past, holdovers which are often ignored or forgotten altogether”. This is especially important in a rapidly changing city like Toronto, where transient yet human elements like graffiti or street art constantly run the risk of being eliminated and forgotten. Do you see yourself as part visual journalist, and that documenting these spots in the city are an integral aspect of your work?
My interest in painting the city was definitely tied to my interest in its history. I always painted my own surroundings, which happened to be older areas of the city. Initially I never really thought of my work as being documentary, but as I began to notice places and things I had previously painted changing or disappearing altogether, I realized that my work was in fact a record of my time and place in the changing city. In a way, the work of all representational painters can be considered a kind of documentary process. We’re all interested in capturing the moment of feeling and intrigue of whatever light, object or scene that strikes us. That could be rain on an old city street corner or light on a diner bar stool, but it’s all capturing the feel and sense of place in one moment in time.
Q: I love how the softness of focus in your works means scenes are recognizable, yet often fluid enough for the viewer to attach their own geographical relevance. I’ve noticed that there are few parks in your works however, and your focus is more on in-between or transient spaces like alleys or streets. Why do you think it is important to appreciate and revere these mundane or “everyday” spots in the city?
I’ve always been drawn to the banal and the mundane in my work: the things people often overlook. Those in-between spaces are what stitch the fabric of a city together, they give the city its tone. The alleys of Toronto express a tremendous amount of character and history and I am continually drawn to paint these spaces. By their very nature they are not revered, and are often overlooked, but they are distinctly familiar.
I think that in-between spaces play an integral part of memory and sense of place. A particular corner or building may not be carefully observed but it can act as a landmark in ones relationship with a place. When these things are lost or replaced it can often create a sense of disorientation and unfamiliarity within the landscape. People often don’t notice things until they’re gone.
Q: What effect do your works have on contemporary art, and contemporary landscape portraiture? What effect do you hope to have on people in this city? How do you fit within this greater movement that is currently culminating a new, unique Toronto identity?
As a painter I’m always trying to look at my everyday surroundings for the first time and I hope to be able to help the viewer do the same. I hope my work can make people take notice of things which they otherwise wouldn’t, and appreciate the moments and places in between. My work is inherently tied to time and place and that time and place is here and now. In a way, that makes my work inherently contemporary.
Q: Who are some of your favourite artists?
This is always a hard question as there are so many and its always changing. Historic: Van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Lautrec, Morrisot, Vuillard, Kirchner, Sargent, Hopper, Diebenkorn. Contemporary: William Wray, Kim Cogan, Alex Kanevsky, Ben Aronson, Chelsea James, to name just a few.
FACADE is currently on display at Project Gallery (1109 Queen St E) until September 4th. Hours of operation are Wednesday – Sunday, 12-5pm.