Not sure if it’s a personal preference or just a human way of thinking but for some reason, it always feels easier to appreciate and enjoy an exhibition comprising works with a coherent theme/imagery/style. And the new solo show by Tristan Unrau at Unit 17 in Vancouver, kept luring us back to check it out and examine it more thoroughly, even it’s purposely opposing this proven concept.

Over the years of talking with artists about their practice, we’ve come across many that use the diversity of their imagery as a way of showing their ambition and creativity. And while this makes sense and seems like a logical choice, the reality is that one’s attention tends to water out when looking at this sort of collection of images. “The paintings find their precedents somewhere along a history of painting,” Unrau said in an interview back in 2017 when explaining a similarly conceptualized body of work. “They seem to want to suggest to us that painting isn’t just about painting anymore, that painting is a way of thinking, that to paint is a kind of telling, and you can do all sort of things with that.” And the nine new paintings and a variety of sculptures that comprise Fase Idols, are continuing this effort to examine both the limits and possibilities held by painting and image-making at large.

Working with a variety of mediums, techniques, and styles, from figurative painting, over abstract works, all the way to telescopic cardboard pillars and small bronze sculptures, the presentation seems to be having no overriding central motifs or stylistic preferences. Yet, with these different styles and sizes, Unrau reflects, or evokes, the way we think of ideas and react to sensory inputs. Having multiple thoughts streamlining through our subconsciousness and continuously sprouting into different directions at all times, there are actually only a few of them that will register in consciousness. And with this presentation, the Canadian-born artist serves us a buffet of visual triggers that might or not enter our stream of thinking and create relatable links. 

Basically relying on the game of associative thinking, this body of work riffs off of both the Old Testament and the first episode of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog (1988). Taking the idea that “style can’t contain painting” as the core of his practice, he is simultaneously referencing Biblical forms through abstract yet harmonious and infinite patterns (Penrose Prayer; Wave Form, 2021), employing a faux naive style of figuration while paying homage to the movements from the mid 20th century that utilized the similar approach (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt; Armada; Thank You David Park, 2021), as well as realistically portraying the main protagonist of the movie, Pawel (Pawel, 2021). And although seemingly erratic in their choice of tropes or visual language, the works are attributed with continuous quality, brushwork confidence, and the undeniable familiarity with each technique and aesthetic used. Whether it’s profoundly rendered light play in the Pawel’s eye or hair, the intricate textures of the SuperGiant, or lose yet determined mark-making in Armada, Unrau’s False Idols are questioning the common way of looking at paintings or art in general, revealing the quintessential importance of the way we experience it. —Sasha Bogojev