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New Arts Underground shows feature paintings of strangers, dreams of gold rush-era dance hall girls

Two new shows will soon be gracing Whitehorse’s Arts Underground — one focused on the faces of interesting strangers, and another looking at gold-rush era women beyond their typical one-dimensional representation.
Painter Paula van Kampen poses with one of her oil paintings at Arts Underground on Sept. 26. The painting is one of 15 that van Kampen made for her new show at the gallery, Strangers From This Planet , that opens Oct. 2. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)

Two new shows will soon be gracing Whitehorse’s Arts Underground — one focused on the faces of interesting strangers, and another looking at gold-rush era women beyond their typical one-dimensional representation.

Painter Pam van Kampen’s exhibit, Strangers from This Planet, will find a home in the Focus Gallery for most of October. It features 15 oil paintings, the majority of which are portraits based on photos van Kampen took while on vacation in eastern Europe in 2018.

(There’s also one self-portrait and a copy of a Rembrandt.)

In an interview, van Kampen said that her interactions with the subjects of her paintings, whom she encountered while travelling through Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Austria with her husband, were brief and consisted of little more than requests to take their pictures, if that.

It serves as a juxtaposition to her last exhibit, hosted at the Yukon Arts Centre in 2017, where she painted the “familiar faces” of mostly Whitehorse locals.

While she had wondered whether painting strangers compared to people she knew would impact the work, she said that ultimately, there isn’t much difference in “way of how I go about painting or how I feel about it or the end product.”

“The only thing I could say is that for people you know … I like (the portrait) to be really looking like that person, whereas for strangers, of course people don’t actually know if they look like that,” she told the News Sept. 25.

However, that doesn’t meant she took artistic liberty with the strangers’ portraits, describing them as “still pretty true” to the source photographs.

One difference oil painting aficionados will notice between van Kampen’s 2017 show and Strangers from This Planet, though, is the method she used to bring the portraits to life. Van Kampen has spent the past few years studying the Venetian technique, developed by Italian painters in the 16th century, which she said is a little more intricate and difficult to do but allows the painter to express depth, transparency and opaqueness better.

She said she chose to do a series of portraits again, using her improved skills, because “I like painting people more than nature.”

“I just think it’s more interesting,” she said, adding that she finds the contrast between the ease of obtaining an image in modern times — one just needs to point their cell phone’s camera at something, or one’s own face — and the long, slow process of painting a portrait intriguing too.

“Interestingly, what I found out (during the Yukon) Arts Centre show is that … people would come in and look at their painting for the first time and that brought on a lot of shyness, a lot of shyness,” she said.

“People were like, not commenting on it much and not going, like ‘Oh, I like myself as a painting,’ which is interesting for me because how many pictures do we have for ourselves on social media? Anywhere, we’re inundated with that, and here I’m just making one painting and it’s taking me a long time and it really shys people away.”

Next to van Kampen’s show, in the adjacent Edge Gallery, will be an exhibit consisting of hand-drawn animations by Virginia Mitford.

Like much of Mitford’s portfolio, She Danced Her Way In & Other Work explores the experience of being a woman and being in the body of a woman in a society that objectifies it. The show consists of three basic films — a series of self-portraits of Mitford wearing baggy long johns, trying to pull out a skirt that’s partially stuck in her underwear and pulling on pantyhose as it stretches, and then two films featuring women she had seen in a photo of in a book about gold-rush-era female entertainers.

“I just kept coming back to that photo,” Mitford said in an interview Sept 28.

“I liked the idea of trying to animate a photograph, and yeah, this one I just found just a connection to my previous self-portrait work … where I’m wearing clothing in an awkward way. And I was really attracted to how these women are … lifting their skirts and just sort of trying to figure out based on their expressions what they’re thinking about or what they’re feeling or why they posed that way — were they asked to?”

The short films of the women are facilitated by a mutoscope, a hand-cranked animation machine that Mitford described as a “glorified flip book, basically.” It was her first time working with mutoscopes and she said they lend a hazy, dream-like quality to the animation.

While women during the gold rush — particularly dance hall girls and sex workers — are often viewed via or secondary to a male perspective that silences, glorifies or vilifies them, Mitford said she hopes her show will allow for audiences to think about what the women could have felt, dreamed and desired.

“I’m not putting words in their mouths,” she said of the two women in her animations. “(The show) is entirely visual so it will sort of reflect whatever the viewer (thinks), their own experience … I’m trying not to say, ‘This is what they would have felt or experienced.’ I was hoping sort of to make a space in the artwork that, it would fill itself in in a way.”

Strangers from This Planet and She Danced Her Way In & Other Work are both on display at Arts Underground from Oct. 2 to 31.

Contact Jackie Hong at