The first floor of La Sala Rossa is a strange little restaurant, with a front room populated by old people on plastic garden chairs. From the kitchen, the sound of flamenco wafts out in time with the smell of bulls’ blood. Upstairs is Canada’s 68th Art Battle.
The format of the event is simple. 12 artists, divided into two rounds, have 20 minutes to paint the best thing they can. At the end of each round, the audience votes, and the top two from each round go on to the final. The selected four have another 20 minutes to paint; then the audience votes for the winner.
Thought-provoking questions, like the point of such an activity, or the ramifications of democratizing the judgment of art, are forgotten the instant a man sporting a painted duck on his head floats through the crowd. The room has an industrial-warehouse-trimmed-in-velvet vibe to it, with six blank canvases in the middle. After a time, an announcement is made from the stage to the artists: “prepare your palettes.”
When the painting begins, “art battle” suddenly becomes a more apt title than it first appeared. Hassane Amraoui immediately removes his canvas from the easel and begins to violently slap paint down from above. Others drop their brushes entirely and battle it out with their hands. From the first round, a gothic portrait by an artist who goes by Miss Yad, and a staged lunar landing by Emmanuel Laflamme are picked. The second round of artists are told to prepare their palettes.
In round two, Judith Brisson, while painting a fictional meeting between Bashar al-Assad and Barack Obama, practically hurls her easel at Melissa Montagne, disguising it superbly as a clumsy accident. Eve Laguë’s colourful geometry is countered by the least artistic-looking man in the world – he looks like a surfer who got seriously lost – who is furiously painting his canvas white. Spectators exchange looks of approbation. The Duckhead bobs around in his shiny black and gold dressing gown. Maliciouz, with a painting of an African woman with neck rings, is sent through to the final round. So, too, is Raphaele Bard, who painted a woman’s face in a bright hue, with a hint of the manga around the eyes.
The final round is a close contest, where the artists’ capacity for invention is really tested. Maliciouz paints a couple in flagrante delicto, while Emmanuel Laflamme spends 19 minutes painstakingly drawing a fan, a suspended paint bucket, and a board. Miss Yad again paints with her fingers, this time a swirling portrait, and Raphaele Bard meticulously drafts a more overtly manga-style character. In the final minute Laflamme throws down his canvas, pouring and splashing blue, so by the end paint from the bucket is hitting the fan and rebounding off the board; Maliciouz takes her final erotic strokes, Miss Yad dips her fingers for the last time, the Bard steps back from the canvas. Art Battle 68 is over.
One by one the spectators drop their tickets into their chosen boxes. After a tense few minutes the winner is announced, without ceremony or cheap delay tactics.
The winner takes to the stage, winning a $100 gift card to spend at the arts and crafts store of their choice. Few battles have had less at stake, fewer still have been fought in the presence of such quantities of velvet, and absolutely none have had participants wearing ducks on their heads – yet a battle it has undoubtedly been. Maliciouz steps gingerly down and poses with her canvas, victorious.