The first painting likely to catch your eye when you walk into Michael Abel’s solo show, Monumental Contradiction, is a piece in three parts called “MONU,” which depicts a building fallen on its side. You’ll notice it at first mainly because it’s cascaded at three different angles, one of which is a low tilt from the ground.
“I like the idea of contradicting myself, a lot,” says Abel, explaining the title of the show. “[‘MONU’] is about the rise and fall of the icon in architecture, and I like reversing that, and now, it’s [about] the rise and fall of the icon of my own painting.”
“MONU” is actually one of the few paintings in the show that has been previously exhibited. Most of Monumental Contradiction is a fresh body of work produced as a result of a new scholarship — founded by Dr. Susannah and Dr. George Kurian — for students in the University of Calgary’s art department.
“The original proposal was to paint the most iconic buildings in North American cities and the themes of their NBA teams,” explains Abel.
And that’s exactly what you see. Abel’s style is highly textural, using gobs and oozes of paint as well as found objects like baseballs and basketball hoops. From a distance, his style is clean and geometric, delineating skyscraping architecture from cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Toronto.
“You’ll see interesting shadow play in a lot of Michael’s works, where the shadow seems to contradict what the mass of the buildings are actually doing,” says Jenna Swift, the show’s curator, “so you get the effect that these massive towers and clocks are kind of levitating, which is physically impossible.”
Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll find a multitude of finer details like sketches, taped textures, or graffiti-like scrawls scratched into the paint. Some of these cues are particularly subtle, like a faint outline of Bruce Willis’ face in Space Jam, which depicts what used to be known as the Willis Tower.
The NBA touches are varied, ranging from team colours to logos to depictions of actual players. Abel explains that he uses the team colours as a pop culture reference intended to distract the viewer. Swift adds: “I see it also as a way to brand and cite these compositions,” as each piece of architecture depicted is closely tied to its home city, just as the teams are.
The Kurians’ scholarship, called My First Professional Exhibition, is intended to provide an opportunity for promising students to hold their first solo show, as is the case for Abel. From here, he’s going on to his masters of architecture at the University of Toronto — so it’s no surprise that metropolitan buildings were the linchpin of this exhibition.
“Architecture is very political, there are so many underlying meanings,” he says. “You can look at architecture as conceptual art.”