Within Latitude 53, there is currently on display two exhibitions both dealing with the challenging themes of identity and otherness. In the ProjEX Room, the smaller of the two gallery spaces, hangs Travis McEwen's show, titled "I Bet They Can Tell Just By Looking". McEwen's statement for the show explains this title in relationship to being asked when he first understood his own otherness; "When did you first realize you were different?" This loaded question brought on an experimental body of work that strives to investigate the physical representation of individual internal awkwardness.
On the four walls hang fourteen oil paintings of varying sizes and softly shifting colour pallets. The works are all recognizable as a kind of traditional form of portraiture. We see shoulders, necks, faces, hair. All the images depict a single 'male' individual, either looking straight out at the viewer, or with the head slightly turned, or in full profile. One piece has its subject turned completely away from the viewer, showing us the back of their head, the base of a neck strained as they look down. These paintings exhibit McEwen's experimentation with subtle changes of formal physicality, expression, colour, and positioning, and how each can greatly alter the internal dialogue of the depicted individuals. Though they are entirely fictional and based on no actual living person, the faces are each specific and entirely their own, with great care taken to develop their own physical reality.
Where the work starts to evolve past these rather simplistic basics, is in the vague and fluctuating facial expressions of each boy ( I use the term boy here based on my own reaction to the projected maturity and gender I've interpreted from these paintings, and not as a declarative or classifying term). When the atmospheric quality of paint application diffuses any exactness we appear to be seeing these faces through a veil of fog, which could be memory, could be their own uncertainty, the insecurity of their identities. No one in the room seems to be sure of themselves, everyone is in a state of physical and/or emotional evolution or questioning.
The connection McEwen has found between this 'rubbed in' sort of paint application, and the subsequent visual 'soft focus' effect creates a heightening of the emotional projection each face possess. Though not all the pieces contain this level of ambiguity; there are some works that seem to be starts into other formal directions, becoming either more physical, or more descriptive in the structure of the face. There is a fairly consistent use of softer pastel-ish backgrounds around each figure, and the colour choice does sometimes seem to control how we interpret the emotional state of its sitter too strongly; rather than having the two elements exist totally together, they can become visually separated.
But as the paintings increase in scale, they start to evolve past these weaker elements. Having the portraits exist at a larger than life size intensifies the effect the gaze of the sitter has on the viewer. Even in their obvious physical awkwardness, we are subject to a confrontation made challenging and unavoidable. I think this exhibition as a body successfully examines the themes that McEwen is concerned with in his work; depicting the individual otherness of our own internal worlds, and communication of that with one another. Though he gives us a variety of different formal ways he's experimenting with this theme, it is strong throughout each variation. It is up to his own discretion whether to develop any one stream, or to continue a multi-faceted formal investigation. The considerable conceptual and formal strengths of many individual pieces in this current exhibition are good reason to look forward to a concentrated pursuit in future works.
Image credits: Travis McEwan, 2008, from the series "I Bet They Can Tell By Just Looking"