May 2, 2008
The young painter Nick Lepard, who's graduating this month from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and is largely unknown to the art world, is waiting in his 10-by-10-foot studio space on Granville Island. Cubicle-height walls delineate his work area and are scarred by patches of paint and scrawled text taken from the lectures he listens to while painting. The more miserable quotations are Schopenhauer. One reads: "Men are only apparently drawn from in front when, in reality, they are pushed from behind."
While Lepard awaits his own push, a boxy Honda Element is parking outside. The vanity licence plate, like the well-dressed woman who now emerges, does not mince words: "BUY ART."
Diane Farris (of the eponymous West Seventh gallery) walks toward the studio all in curator's black, hugged by a thin, porous wrap; her nails, which move constantly, are painted purple. Usually fast-talking and boisterous, she grows hushed stepping into the studio space, asking passing students for the whereabouts of Lepard and cajoling them to swipe their security passes so that she can proceed.
The young artists are wise to give her entrée. Farris's connection with the Emily Carr school is in some ways more substantial than that of any single benefactor, for she serves as gatekeeper to a fleet of them. This year's Grad Show runs May 3 to 11, featuring Lepard's work as well as offerings from the others in his graduating class, any of whom would be thrilled to join the list of Emily Carr grads who've been introduced to the larger market through the Rolodex of the Diane Farris Gallery. These include some of our most bankable artists: Graham Gillmore, Derek Root, Angela Grossmann, Charles Rea, and Attila Richard Lukacs were all famously presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibit The Young Romantics in 1985 (the year they graduated), but all had already been identified by Farris and chaperoned into her Five Young Artists show, which ran the same year.
Today she has come to the school's hive of miniature studios to call upon her next protégé. As she navigates the labyrinth of easels and doe-eyed students (some recognize her, some don't), Farris is nearly as excited as someone on a date. She passes more than 90 workstations. "Where is he? Where is he?" She spots the work first, a massive, romantic portrait of a youth done in the large, body-swung brushstrokes that are typical of Lepard's passionate style. There are two mouths on this figure, as though to depict a confusion of motion.
Farris puts her chin down: "Oh God, Nick, you've gone psychotic."
Lepard is good-looking, soft-spoken, and lightly tattooed. He wears a white V-neck T-shirt with ordinary jeans and hardly gives off art-star radiance. Farris is so confident in his abilities, though, that she's booked a solo show at her gallery, June 5 to 28. (She drove to his mother's house for an impromptu interview within hours of opening an email jpeg attachment. "My main objective when she came," Lepard told me, "was to not say anything silly.") The glow of her attention, and the attention it inspires in others, should both excite and worry him.
The Lepard story hangs on one particular work, From Milan to Vienna, a self-portrait he flung off after six weeks in Europe with a buddy. ("I wanted to paint the way he played the guitar on those long bus rides-with my whole self.") When Farris fell in love with the romantic force of that canvas, and booked him, a question naturally arose: What next?
All the paintings in his show will be oil portraits of young white men, their oversize, often insolent stares crowding in on the visitor from sensual and roughly brushed canvases. They are all reminiscent of the breakthrough self-portrait. Earlier work has been abandoned
Farris, too, is fixed on the future. She scans the new paintings-quickly asking if he has any more.
Anticipatory sales (charcoal studies are already moving at a brisk pace) have been aided by lowball pricing-the canvases are offered for about $5,000, which seems to irk Lepard slightly. "You mustn't get too big too fast," Farris warns him, sharp eyes looking over thick-rimmed glasses at another canvas, this one in cooler tones, with a soft look in the subject's eyes. "You behave yourself now." She wags a finger. "No prima donna or you're gone. Chris Woods was $900 when I started him.
"Besides," she says, looking back at the two-mouthed figure. "You may start doing some paintings where people have 20 mouths and no one will buy them. We set your prices so you always go up and never down. Ten or 15 percent every show."
Lepard worries about whether he should go surfing or travel to see the galleries in Europe after his debut; Farris is convinced he can do both. "Don't ever buy into that starving-artist shtick, Nick. You don't have to be poor. Life is full of suffering anyway, so feel free to make plans that have business sense behind them."
But, pointedly 25, the artist responds by talking about his search for himself. "I mean, right now, I'm still figuring out who I'm going to be. I'm scraping for some sense of that.
"It will sound really cheesy"-he rubs the back of his neck-"but I guess these paintings are about me becoming a man."
Farris is tightening her wrap, preparing to go. "You're a grown-up now, Nick. You're out there." She gives him a smile. "It's wonderful to hear what's going on in your mind. There's something in there."
"Yeah," he says. "Appearances can be deceiving."