Bev Pike’s gargantuan canvases are too big to easily take in

Art | by Gregory Beatty

The title of this exhibition by Winnipeg painter Bev Pike made me to do a double-take the first time I saw it. But once I learned more about the show, it made perfect sense.

Grottesque is an amalgam of “grotto” and “grotesque”. While that might seem like an odd word combination — the former being a space of quiet contemplation, the latter something that’s gross or creepy — Blair Fornwald explains in a curatorial essay that they share an etymological root dating back to the 15th century.

The story goes back further than that, actually, to the time of Roman emperor Nero. Notoriously corrupt and decadent, he was mid-build on a 300-room palace when he was overthrown and killed in 68 CE. The palace (Domus Aurea) was subsequently demolished, and remained buried until a 15th century Roman youth fell into a crevice and discovered a magical chamber decorated with frescoes.

Originally, then, “grotesque” was linked to the idea of a grotto/cave, and the sense of wonder that accompanied Domus Aurea’s discovery.

Pike’s paintings inspire a sense of wonder too. To begin with, the five gouache on paper works are huge — measuring roughly six metres by four metres. Each depicts an imagined grotto similar to the one Nero built at Domus Aurea.

The sheer scale of the paintings preclude you from taking them in at a single glance. So they do create a bit of an immersive feeling. That’s enhanced by their composition, which Fornwald describes as resembling a proscenium stage with Golden Mean proportions that creates a sense of being able to enter each grotto.

When Domus Aurea was discovered, it created a sensation in Europe. Some aristocrats, as part of a broader Neoclassical movement that later emerged, even built grottoes of their own. Two famous ones that Fornwald cites are the Shell Grotto at Margate, which features mosaics made of over four million sea shells; and the Crystal Grotto at Painshill, which has hand-crafted quartz, calcite and fluorite stalagmites.

Pike’s grottoes are equally whimsical. In addition to the proscenium arch, she uses bilateral symmetry as a compositional device. The left and right sections of each grotto aren’t mirror images, but they do have a strong duality that Fornwald compares to Rorschach inkblots.

Like inkblots, Pike’s paintings possess a certain amount of ambiguity. From a distance, they are visually coherent — outside of a slight partition effect due to them being composed of two sheets of carefully aligned paper. But as you approach thick brushstrokes distil out of the images — giving them an abstract look.

While architecturally impressive, there’s something odd about some of the grottoes’ core elements. The answer won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with past work by Pike, but the pillars, altars, pedestals and whatnot are made of swirling stacks of fabric.

Previously, Pike has used sculpted piles of bedding, clothes and other fabrics to explore ideas of femininity, the body, domestic space and exterior landscape. Some of that is present here, but there are additional associations tied to grottoes/caves being spiritual places where oracles in ancient Greece and Rome delivered prophecies, and fertility cults symbolized the idea of being in a womb.

Overall, Grottesque is a comforting show to see. A true sense of awe is engendered by the paintings. But there’s a dark side to the work too.

Pike began this series before Trump was elected president, but the increasingly toxic political climate south of the border and the comparisons that have been made between Trump and Nero — who lives in infamy as the emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned” — is unnerving. So that’s an inescapable backdrop to Grottesque.

There’s also the whole idea of the European aristocracy, and their mania for creating indulgent “follies” in emulation of despots such as Nero. In an age when economic inequality is at record levels, and the elite shamelessly flaunt their wealth while billions live in abject poverty, it’s a tough pill to swallow.

Those are just peripheral issues, though, along with the allusion to Cold War bomb shelters, and the luxe survival compounds the ultra-rich are busy building these days to save themselves from what they fear is an impending environmental/socio-economic apocalypse. An apocalypse that, irony of ironies, is being caused largely by their greed and hubris.

All that aside, Grottesque is a beauty of a show.