Prominent U.S. curator-critic Robert Storr has remarked that "painting today is hardly the king of the hill it was for most of the 20th century, nor is it ever likely to be so again." Still, no one's saying, as they were in the late 1970s and early '80s, that painting is dead. Looking for proof? Look no further than the RBC Canadian Painting Competition which marked its 16th (!) anniversary this week by awarding Tiziana La Melia $25,000 as the 2014 laureate. A graduate of the University of Guelph and Emily Carr University, La Melia was one of 600 "emerging painters" to enter this year's joust, prevailing over 14 other finalists at an awards ceremony Wednesday evening in Montreal. It was second-time lucky for the Vancouver-based La Melia, 32, who first entered the competition last year. The Globe and Mail caught up with a sleep-deprived but "pretty happy" artist by phone the morning after her win.
Has painting always been part of your art practice? Or did you come to it later?
I've been doing it consistently since going to university but always in relation to other things. There was a time when I was like, 'Well, maybe I'll just be a writer:' I'd have these moments where I'd think I should push something and focus on something more singular. But it seems more in my disposition to think through several mediums.
Having won the RBC, though, do you feel an impetus to concentrate more on painting?
I think that I'll continue to have a multiple practice and that painting will be an important part of it but also in relation to language, say, and poetry and sculpture. I see myself experimenting with the format of painting in various modes. Like, in a state where it's not on the wall.
How characteristic or typical is Hanging on to the part [the oil on board that won La Melia the RBC prize] of your painting practice?
It's typical but it's something that I haven't exhibited so much. I do a lot of drawing and in relation to my drawing it's pretty precise. It's more characteristic of something that I do and don't show anybody [laughs]. So in that sense it's a departure in that I haven't really exhibited that kind of work in public. [The painting is on view along with works by the other finalists at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Oct. 8. It also will be shown at the Art Toronto fair in late October.]
The figure in the painting is positioned downward. 'Downwardness' is a common motif in art history and myth. There's Adam's fall, Icarus descending, Titian's The Flaying of Marsyas, Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St. Peter. Did this sort of thinking figure in your approach?
Not directly. I was thinking a lot about poses. I arrived at that moment more through the act of painting and decision-making. I like to keep the work open so things can happen, like, for instance, the duck, and the sort of foliage that's there, and the sort of pond that's sliding down from the partition. The painting is pretty complex, I admit, and even difficult for me to sum up. It's also kind of a meta thing for me, thinking about identity and roles, my performance as a painter. The title has the word 'part' in it and you think about the multiplicity of meanings it has.
There's a looseness to the painting. The face is, for want of a better word, more cartoonish than modelled, almost like something by Philip Guston or maybe Jean-Michel Basquiat …Something I've always thought about with dance, is that it's sort of an abstracted thought. Yes, there's the human figure but the pose is an abstraction. The cartoon figure is figurative. It feels like certain things, but it kind of dissolves a little bit, so it reads like shapes. Figuration can sometimes emerge as cartoons for me because there's something freeing about that mode of representation. They can be read in multiple ways.
You were born in Italy and came to Canada when you were five or six. Italy is, of course, the home of the Renaissance and centuries of great painting. Has that had any impact on you? Was your family artistic in any way?
Not really. They're farmers, actually. They're artistic in accidental ways. Almost through their bilingualism there's really interesting ways of expression that happen when you're just trying to speak in a different language. I think in those moments I recognize a creativity of sorts. My first encounters with art were paintings, or mosaics in churches. That probably was a strong influence in some way. It was just so much a part of the [Italian] culture.
This interview has been edited and condensed.