Canadian moving portraitist on display in London

Joan Sullivan
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Peter Wilkins “12 Writers’ Portraits” is on display at Canada House, in London’s
Trafalgar Square, until May 31. — Photo by Joan Sullivan/Special to The Telegram


If personality is not static, why should portraiture be? That is one question Peter Wilkins poses with his “12 Writers’ Portraits.”

The boundary-pushing visual artist uses still and moving imagery in ways that overlap, harmonize, and regenerate the world we see.

He does it with Gros Morne landscapes, he does it with New York cityscapes, he does it with the furnishings of Gander airport and here he does it with people.

The 12 works are medium squares within thick wooden frames. Each shows a five-minute video, on continuous loop, of a famed, framed, Canadian writer — Alistair MacLeod, Margaret Atwood, Wayne Johnston.

There is no sound, as they don’t talk, but the figures are responsive, attentive, listening and frequently looking out at the viewer.

The others include Yann Martel, David Adams Richards, Anne Michaels, Jane Urquhart, M.G. Vassanji, Roch Carrier, Austin Clarke, Douglas Copeland and Anne-Marie MacDonald, and all were created in 2005 or 2006.

A panel next to each explains the author’s credits and place in Canadian writing.

Wilkins’ method was to interview the author about their life, and then he repeated their thoughts back to them, asking questions about what they said, and filmed their reaction.

They don’t answer, but just consider.

This is not enhanced or manipulated in any way, just unspooling in real time, as is.

Thus, each is a five-minute pose that is an episode in itself, and then enfolded into a telescoping piece of cinema.

The viewer does not know what has been discussed or is being disclosed, but can only study the subject’s comportment. These are the only contextual clues.

Atwood seems quietly amused, Urquhart is very still, MacDonald animated, Johnston pensive.

At the end, they rise and exit, but the sequence is immediately started again, with no fade-outs or black screen to mark off the new iteration.

Details seep through. The background is their own space, such as a study of book-lined shelves, a sofa against a stairwell or Michael’s background wall of weathered, vivid paintings.

They are dressed in their own, casual, likely work (“writing”) clothes, the men, for example, almost uniformly in open-necked shirts.

Sitting in the gallery with the works emanating from the walls is oddly soothing. Their un-stillness, and there-ness, is both magic and banal.

A viewer probably wouldn’t watch each through more than once, but the subjects continue to, benignly, watch them. It can feel like a two-way contemplative interaction.

No one is really still, not even for a few seconds. A painting is an articulated moment and these films are longer glimpses.

Besides introducing a new format in the alignment of portraiture, and bio-pics for that matter, Wilkins has engraved the genre with a temporality, and a person-capture.

Wilkins’ “12 Writers’ Portraits” continues at Canada House, Trafalgar Square, until May 31. Admission is free.

Wilkins has a second exhibition, “New Groves,” gorgeously toned and concentrated circles based on record albums, running concurrently at Bloomsbury Design.

He will also exhibit at the 2013 Venice Biennale, with Will Gill.

Organizations: Canada House, Bloomsbury Design

Geographic location: London, New York, Gander Trafalgar Square

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