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Vanessa Maltese, winner of the 2012 RBC Painting Competition

Erika Jacobs

The winner and the runners-up

Toronto artist Vanessa Maltese prevailed over 14 other finalists Thursday evening at a ceremony in Toronto to be named this year's winner of the RBC Canadian Painting Competition. Maltese, 24-year-old graduate in drawing and painting from OCAD University, won the $25,000 prize, started in 1999 to recognize emerging artistic talent. One of the nine jurors for the competition praised her oil painting Balaclava as an "intriguing and thoughtful interrogation of surface and patterning, abstraction and elements of representation." Another lauded "the economy of means it uses to achieve complex results."

Maltese was one of 536 painters who entered works in the competition. Fifteen finalists were chosen in June, five each from the three regions (western, central and eastern) into which the prize divides the country. The competition originally focused on artists from Toronto and environs, then went national in 2001, naming one winner per region for the next three years until it was agreed that jurors could pick both a national winner and two regional winners. In 2007, the regional category was abandoned and the current scheme introduced whereby jurors pick a national winner and two runners-up.

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As coincidence would have it, the jurors for this year's contest, the 14th annual, ended up representing the three regions in their choices. Named as runners-up were Betino Assa, 28, a Bulgarian-born MFA student at Montreal's Concordia University (honoured for a fanciful acrylic on engraved plexiglass painting titled Gathering in the forest 12 a.m.), and 30-year-old Katie Lucy Lyle, an MFA graduate from the University of Victoria. She was recognized for White Night, a portrait in oils of a female face. Lyle and Assa each were awarded $15,000.

The three winning works are now part of RBC's permanent corporate collection, but they are on public view, along with those of the other 12 finalists, at the Power Plant in Toronto now through Dec. 3.

The jurors

It took the nine jurors – a mix of curators, directors, dealers, artists and writers from across the country – almost 11 hours of deliberation, spread over two days this week in a downtown Toronto office tower, to choose Maltese as the winner and Assa and Lyle as the runners-up. Most of the first day was spent intensely discussing the 15 paintings individually, out of which, by day's end, seven were deemed worthy of further consideration the next morning. Voting for Maltese's Balaclava "shifted around, up and down, among the panel," noted Nigel Prince, a juror and director of Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery. "But it was always in contention."

At the same time, there was plenty of "reassessing of opinions based on what the others said," remarked another juror, Jonathan Shaughnessy, associate curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery in Ottawa. "In my case, two of the winners are not paintings I thought I'd be convinced about at the beginning of yesterday [Nov. 27]."

Intriguingly, as the jurors winnowed down the field, the conversation focused less on who the winner would be ("There was a strong indication we had a winner fairly early on," one juror said) and more on who would be accorded runner-up status. Shaughnessy said that "the toughest conversation" occurred in going to three finalists from four. Blessedly, the jurors didn't have to rank the runners-up by second and third place. Laughed Shaughnessy: "We might still be here if we had to do that." As it was, the jury concluded its business at 11:38 a.m. Wednesday.

The critic and speaker

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Painting may not have the centrality it once had in the visual arts. But Adam Gopnik doesn't care. "I love painting and of all the arts it's the one I'm most drawn to," he said in a brief interview a few hours before he was to deliver the keynote address at the RBC Canadian Painting Competition ceremony. At 56, Gopnik is no stranger to the art world – he has written about it often during his illustrious 26-year association with The New Yorker magazine – nor to Canada (though Philly-born, he's Montreal-raised) nor to Canadian art (having participated, for example, in the 2011 Sobey Art Award).

"I'm well aware there's this sense that painting is a dying form and that the beatific vision is now available in a video installation in a darkened room with an enigmatic track playing alongside it and a long explanation of how the enigmatic track and the video together do something or other to this or that for the construction of reality," he observed. "And I have no reason to think that's not a completely authentic aesthetic experience; it's just that I vibrate to painting."

In fact, he asserted, "you can make the case that painting is actually the single most relevant thing we have right now. … We live in a civilization where the idea of craft, the idea of the artisanal, of the thing made with skill that the rest of us can't do at all, is simultaneously deprecated – 'It's not important' – and hugely valued individually. … We continue to be drawn to painting because we recognize it represents [like a chef cooking on a TV show] that enviable excellence of craft, the transmission of lived experience through the prism of a particular sensibility. … It's one-on-one communication in a world of million-on-million communication."

Asked if Canadian painting has any distinguishing characteristics, Gopnik noted its aversion to "shock content" and "kitsch content." And as much as he hesitates to generalize, he says, "if you put a gun to my head the thing that strikes me about all the work in the RBC competition … is that Canadians have a national inclination – or should I say natural? – for the small-scale inspection of large-scale themes. To my mind, the greatest of Canadian painters is Lawren Harris. … He puts an iceberg into a picture yea big to a frame yea big" – Gopnik gestured with his hands to indicate a small dimension – "yet it's a totally persuasive iceberg."

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