The Unnoticed Batman, Suburban Pearls and Divine Muppet Dolls: The Art of Glenn Priestley

Glenn Priestley is a Fredericton, New Brunswick artist whose drawings, pastels and oil paintings can elevate aspects of daily life, even the mundane, to classical opulence. The intuitive play he creates is a confluence in the interacting figures, everyday places, and a rediscovery of forgotten kitsch treasures. It’s a balance that can only be struck by an artist who has achieved a mastery of skill in the language of painting, colour and form.

('Midway' by Glenn Priestley)
(‘Midway’ by Glenn Priestley)

Before setting down roots in New Brunswick, Priestly had two years of Vocational Art training in high school in Scarborough. He then entered 2nd year as an advanced student in the Drawing and Painting Dept. of Ontario College of Art (now OCAD). His final year of OCA was spent off campus, studying in Florence, Italy.

Ahead of the trend in 1996, he moved with his wife, Sylvia, to Fredericton in order to afford a larger studio space in the Maritimes. Sylvia, a native of New Brunswick, discovered a former Lion’s Club on the outskirts of Fredericton, which they converted into a split home and studio. The move from Toronto to New Brunswick drastically effected Priestley’s work. At first Priestley struggled with the change in subject matter leaving behind the familiar in Toronto but he eventually found his voice through his experience of being a parent. His daughter Georgia began being featured increasingly in his work as he discovered new subject matter in suburban life.

“Many people had not thought of using the suburbs as subject for art so it was all very new. When we moved to Fredericton I found the natural landscape ‘pretty’ and ‘picturesque’ and quite conventional for an artist. It was very beautiful… but it was not my subject.

I also did not realize how much of an emotional content was tied into what I wanted to paint. I had no experiences here (yet) and did not feel I could be ‘authentic’ in creating work about this region. It was all so new.

Having a young daughter I slowly found my voice. I was now a parent and it was a natural thing to see a child experience new things and brought me into the world of kid’s culture. Fairs, school, sports, family events etc. great gatherings of people and excellent subject matter for an artist interested in figurative composition. Over time I became familiar with the area and I now have emotional associations and experiences here, which allowed me to speak in what I feel is a natural and my “authentic” voice. I now feel part of the place, but this took time.”

(Georgia' by Glenn Priestley)
(Georgia’ by Glenn Priestley)

Viewing his work can be especially intriguing to the maritime viewer; familiar faces, nostalgic objects, and places are presented with the same visual language as a regal portrait of the 17th – 19th century or a divine alter of the Medieval or Renaissance era. Due to his mastery of skill, he has the ability to elevate the mundane aspects of life: second-hand shopping, mall trotting or eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken are exulted to the sublime levels of Baroque, Classical or Romanic painting. Each figure is carefully placed to direct the eye around the canvas to the layers of meaning hidden in each crevice.

Seasoned viewers of Priestley’s paintings will enjoy the experience of déjà vu when entering his studio. It is filled to its high ceilings with collections of still life objects he has collected over many years. These stuffed critters, articles of clothing and an empty WW2 bombshell recur in Priestley’s paintings almost like a secret code or divine icon would in a religious painting. There is a sense that if you examine these paintings in detail you will eventually decipher why that pink stuffed lion appears in the center of “Midway” (2000) as well as his portrait of his daughter “Georgia” (1991), or the muppet doll in the lower right corner of  “Stardust” shows up in “The Collectors” (2013). Or maybe he is painting the history of these objects; the energy that is held within each one repeating its karmic pattern from owner to owner.

(The 'Collector' by Glenn Priestley)
(‘The Collectors’ by Glenn Priestley)

Priestly describes a state of being ‘beyond thought’ when choosing his objects for an artwork, as though the choice were something outside of his control.

“I really don’t know. I don’t question it. I guess in looking at so much art over the years I have subconsciously formulated an aesthetic for specific things that might work in a painting but, I honestly don’t give it much thought other than…that looks ‘right’. I sometimes buy or collect things that resonate with me.”

Another feature of Priestley’s studio is his tendency to take photos of visitors, giving them the chance to win the honour of appearing in one of his works. Stacks upon stacks of photographs are stored in a filing cabinet of all the folk who have passed through his studio over the years. This appearance of locals in his paintings is like the experience of returning to New Brunswick for the holidays and you see flashes of familiar faces in the crowds. It elevates New Brunswick folk to the level of classical or baroque upper class.

Many familiar faces from these photographs appear in the center of “Collector” (2013). In the drawing, a maritime woman is framed between three pigeons and it is very compositionally similar to the canon of medieval or renaissance annunciation scenes, where a dove appears to the Virgin Mary to indicate that she is pregnant with a divine child.  The woman stands before a ‘cross’ walk, as if Priestly is referencing the medieval device of disguising religious symbolism in artwork. Near the bottom of the composition is another maritime man pushing a shopping cart where the muppet doll reappears, now elevated to a divine icon, holding a pair of shoes by a fishing rod. It almost invites you to take your shoes off while walking on this ‘holy’ cross walk. It is possible that this elevation of the muppet doll to Divine Status is a subconscious one, given Priestly simple description of the toy, despite its reappearances.

“The muppet doll was from my nephew who had outgrown it. It was sitting by his door with some toys to be donated to Goodwill.”

('Batman' by Glenn Priestley)
(‘Batman’ by Glenn Priestley)

While Priestly describes much of his activities as intuitive, there is also a very conscious construction of the composition, which takes into account the gaze of the eye. “Batman” (2016) looks out into a sea of unknowns in a similar vein to great paintings such as Caspar David Frederick’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818) or Alex Colville’s “Snowplow” (1967). This tradition of having the protagonist’s back to us has always been daring as it creates questions. The viewer is left to either contemplate the identity of this masked hero or become Batman. Upon first viewing, Batman stands out as very unusual but, as we continue to explore the painting we come to the realization that each figure in the composition is distracted and we are the only ones struck by the iconic shape of Batman’s head.

Priestley is fully aware the importance of eye gaze and has purposefully directed each person’s view away from Batman. Even the gaze of the child, who seems to have turned in surprise, is directed somewhere else. The crowd seems to be in a waking sleep – Batman in a sea of zombies. Is the cause of this zombification an overdose of cotton candy or the holiday rush by the snowflake lights above? Batman goes unnoticed and we are left to wonder if he has developed powers of invisibility or that we are in a world where something as amazing as a superhero has become mundane. Have we become so distracted by our smartphones, hypnotic advertisements, mainstream media fear porn and drugged by the chemicals in our food that we wouldn’t notice Batman staring us in the face if he came to rescue us from our own conundrum? Amid this darkness, one person does notice batman; the viewer. Are we the only one in this crowd will still see our hero or are we being called to become our own Batman?

In contrast to Batman’s back is an intriguing French Bulldog who always confronts you with his stare in many of Priestley’s works including, “Stardust” (2010).

('Stardust' by Glenn Priestley)
(‘Stardust’ by Glenn Priestley)

“In looking at the dog in the drawing I would say he is a bemused observer of what is taking place around him. He is looking at you, the viewer, in the eye, the only thing making eye contact… and perhaps having the same thoughts about the situation.”

“Stardust” (2010) is a delight to the eye to follow the various lines of the interlacing figures which swirl around the composition, to pause briefly at the French Bulldog for a breath, and then round and round again. It is a carnival ride. The density of the figurative composition is on the level of the neoclassical. It is deeply satisfying to examine the asymmetrical balance; akin to Asian landscape paintings such as a detail of Xia Gui “Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut” (13th century) or Bunsei’s “Landscape” (15th century) with the left side’s use of empty space. The strength of this empty space is not only in allowing the viewers a visual area of breath but, gives them a chance to be part of the artwork by imagining what could be there. This draws the viewer deeper into the work.  In “Stardust” the viewer is presented with a variety of artistic indulgences, giving the viewer a pleasure overload similar to one of the children depicted at the carnival. Priestly insists this sense of balance is intuitive and speaks of a meditative state he reaches when drawing:

“It is important to trust your intuitive unconscious mind and let the drawing develop on its own. The key when starting a large figurative drawing is to be an explorer, do not go in with a fixed agenda. Interpret what is happening, take chances and make intuitive decisions as to where things are going, because… you really shouldn’t know. You should be ‘beyond thought’ when drawing. You must hand yourself over to the process. This is very, very important.”

('Snow Flowers' by Glenn Priestley)
(‘Snow Flowers’ by Glenn Priestley)
('Backyard Winter' by Glenn Priestley)
(‘Backyard Winter’ by Glenn Priestley)

Other than Priestley’s mastery of composition, he has a deep understanding colour. Often making comparisons to music, he understands that colours need to be placed in a sequence similar to pitches in a musical chord to create harmony. There is an inner glow created by this sequence that is undeniably Priestley and it is informed by many 19th landscape paintings, such as Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt. In reviewing “Batman”, it is clear that the band of turquoise in the little girl’s hat, as well as, her pink jacket is carefully echoed on the opposite side of the painting by the colours of the cotton candy. There are many relationships like this if you look deeply into the painting.  The colours are carefully sequenced to create an inner glow.

His synesthetic understanding of art and music isn’t limited to colour either but, also to concepts of presentation. He compares his most recent series to musical theme and variations. “Backyard Winter,” “Snow Flowers” and “Winter Wind” (2016) are part of six variations featuring his own studio at different times of day, with different lighting and in different seasons. In the winter seasons, the frozen plants in the foreground of “Backyard Winter” (2016) cascade and create curvy forms similar to Art Nouveau designs, while the colours reminisce of an Impressionist’s obsessions with colour:

“Monet did the same thing with his haystacks paintings. I can’t imagine he had much interest in haystacks other than using them as a “subject” to express in paint. I liked the simplicity and variety of the shapes that snow created on the building and yard and was curious what I could do with it. I’m working on 6 of them. The subject is ‘painting’ not the building.”

In the end, it all comes down to Priestley’s obsessions with paint, colour and the language of visual art. Like an alchemist seeking the recipe for gold, he spends hours just mixing colour . He emphasizes, in great length, the importance of finding the perfect sequence of colours for a painting and that an artist should be spending a significant amount of time mixing colours prior to even beginning a work. The colour sequences he chooses also harken back to 19th century Romantic painting. On a subconscious level, the viewer is familiar with this colour sequence having viewed it many times before in museums and this creates a further sense of nostalgia.

There is something comforting in knowing that Priestley continues to work diligently to elevate New Brunswick culture to sublime and regal heights; that the memories of our childhood toys, Maritime Kitsch objects and other aspects of our visual culture are eternally elevated in his artwork. It gives you the positive sensation of reviewing a family photo album while simultaneously acting as a testament that the everyday suburban culture can be heroic and iconic. 

Check out the rest of Glenn Priestley’s artwork online. You might see someone from New Brunswick who you know.