The tiny world of Mike Bayne
What to do with Mike Bayne's tiny, exacting paintings? The first thing that strikes you is the feat of them: Bayne, who clearly has a gift for hyper-realistic renderings in oil, seems almost to be painting these works simply to prove he can do it: For all their precision, the accomplishment is made all the more impressive by the fact that Bayne's medium is almost exclusively a 4 by 6 inch panel.
So. Tiny and precise, Bayne uses this gift to capture what could aptly be called the exquisite banal: tired strip malls and worn-out suburbs, most of them framed as though with a disinterested glance -- cast back or sideways, for that just-passing-through sense of ambivalence -- and, for his current show at Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, which opened last night, weary face-on pictures of chillingly modest suburban houses, a motel, a church. Some are dusted with a thin layer of grimy snow; others sport the patchy brown lawn that is the hallmark of of lifeless suburban Canada for far too many months every year.
We know what Bayne is up to -- or at least partly. The exquisite banal wasn't his idea; it actually belongs to Edouard Manet, the original "painter of modern life," as Baudelaire liked to call him, for his eschewing portrait commissions from the wealthy in favour of excursions into working class Paris, where he painted the dank coffee houses and world-weary prostitutes. Jeff Wall, who seems a pretty obvious reference for Bayne, as does fellow Vancouver photoconceptualist, Roy Arden, took up Manet's mantle in the 80s when he started making his huge, backlit photographs of unexceptional cityscapes in Vancouver (that it was Vancouver mattered almost not at all; Wall, who Bayne seems clearly to be following, was rendering a vague postmodern Everywhere of suburbs and battered urbanity.)
Where Wall's is vast and glowing, Bayne's is wee and dour. I get it, I think -- Bayne's painter's skill, obviously capable of something grand, harnessed and curtailed into the service of the invisibly everyday. It's clever, formally, for sure. But Manet worked in pursuit of honesty, almost like a documentarian; and Wall would lay claim to the same, but at the same time, with scale and light, he was deliberately heroicizing the banal to create a tension in the viewer.
And Bayne? There's something being said here, certainly, about form and content -- snapshot-size paintings of buildings built an the era of snapshots, when painting, or figurative painting, at least, appeared to have been trumped by photography -- and indeed, on first glance, you'd be hard pressed to know they weren't just snapshots at all (the moment you get close enough to see the brushstrokes is actually a bit of a trip).
But the tension Bayne looks to introduce is so tiny, quiet and subtle it almost vanishes. The reductive scale seems to serve as surrender to his subjects' own lack of significance. They are, at the end, beautiful, tiny things; but if the artist himself seems to be doubting the worth of his subjects, why wouldn't we?