The War of Art

A review of Art Battle 14 / Interview with creator, Chris Pemberton

Photo credit: Noah Gano and Art Battle

Above a small store on Queen West, I enter Casa de Simon Plashkes. Chris Pemberton, who created Art Battle with Plashkes, is sitting in front of a computer listening to Beirut. He offers me a beer and I immediately feel at home. The walls are almost entirely decorated with the paintings from previous Art Battle competitors, all of whom Chris has something enthusiastic to say about. Right away, it is apparent that Chris Pemberton loves what he does.

My first Art Battle was AB 14 (May 31st, 2011 at The Great Hall). It kind of felt like my first concert. I knew I liked the concept (visual art / rock ‘n’ roll), but I wasn’t sure if it would hit the mark live. I was not disappointed.

There are two initial rounds of “battle” where eight competitors vie to do their best work in just twenty minutes. The top two ranking paintings in each set as voted for by the crowd, move on to the third and final round where they compete for a cash prize of $300. Every painting is put on display during the show in an open auction. If a painting doesn’t sell, it is disposed of at the end of the night. I assumed by incineration or firing squad, but more on destruction later.

After getting to know each other a short while, Chris and I sat down for a few questions:

SG: So why competition? Why pit artists against each other?

Pemberton: It makes them work harder…

SG: Fair enough. Did you have something in mind when the idea popped into your head?

Pemberton: Yes… Every person, every audience member, whatever art it is they’re looking at, has a preference as to one over the other. They get to judge. This is an opportunity, in action, to rate art both individually and as a group. We, as people, think some art is just better than others.

SG: Sure. And the audience gets the opportunity to witness the entire process.

Pemberton: Right. Competing in Art Battle is exciting. The adrenaline rush lasts for days. It gives spotlight to those who usually work alone.

SG: Good answer… So, why did you start Art Battle?

Pemberton: I wanted people hanging on every moment of that experience. For a painter, they don’t get that. So, this gives them the “rock star” experience. For the audience, they get access to something they’ve never seen. We wanted to bring artists and audience together… It’s become more than that now, though. It’s better than we ever dreamed. It creates something, an electricity, that’s tangible.

Photo credit: Noah Gano and Art Battle

Electric it is. What started off as a niche-event has become the talk of the local art scene. If you haven’t been to Art Battle, you need to go. It is one of those unique experiences that is nearly impossible to recreate.

The day of Art Battle 14 was one of the first genuine hot, sunny days of the year. Patios were packed and people were strolling about like they hadn’t since what seemed like forever ago.  Despite the lack of AC in The Great Hall, no one seemed to mind the sweat. There was a buzz in the air. It certainly felt like much of the crowd, including myself, were about to lose their art war virginity.

The first round seemed like a clear shot for the winner.  Sure enough, Zara Diniz stole the crowd’s fancy with a simple, yet passionate portrait of a woman’s face. She was up against some stiff competition in Jacqueline Pourier, who had won another competition just that previous Sunday, and OMS (Omar Hopkinson), who took second.

Zara Diniz’s First Round Winner

“There are a lot of heavy-hitters here tonight!” Chris declared before round two began. Sure enough, once the paint started to fly and dry, he was proven right.

Lines were drawn. The crowd became so immersed that we had to choose sides. While people still sauntered around the room to see what all of the artists were doing, as they did in the first round, their pace slowed. You were stuck in one spot longer because that artist was doing something that really piqued your interest.

By Carlos Delgado

My personal favourite was a lovely work by Carlos Delgado (no, not that Carlos Delgado).  His intense, seemingly random brush strokes resulted in a wonderfully expressive piece you would never have known was churned out in a third of an hour. Similarly, a friend of mine, Danny DeVito’s personal favourite (no, not that Danny DeVito) was of a fish with a light bulb in it that looked contemplatively toiled over by Dave Sheppard.

By Dave Sheppard

During the downtime before the final battle, bidding on the works started to heat up. It was at this point I realized that it was not just the artists at war, but each and every one of us. Danny became engrossed in a bidding battle over Zara Diniz’s first piece with a girl who had been to previous events and never won a painting; despite wagering over $300 on her last attempt. At one point he changed his name on the bid sheet to “Danny (Won’t Stop) Devito”. Of course, he did eventually have to stop. My war was over Carlos’s painting. I started a good $20 above the initial bid (each begins at $60), but an old lady in track pants kept jogging back to the table to outdo me. Although, as I found out a couple weeks later when I spoke with Chris, my last bet was sufficient to make her jog elsewhere.

SG I didn’t get to stay for the destruction. Do you do it live?

Pemberton: Yeah, for sure. It happens when one or two of the paintings doesn’t get purchased at the minimum price.

SG: Do you vary the methods you use for disposing of the work?

Pemberton: Yes, yes we do. But we have one now that we really like.

SG: Is it a chainsaw?

PembertonAhh, no. We’re definitely not done with the chainsaw, but we have a method we really like right now involving paint smears…

Destroyed (?) By Smear

Art Battle 14 ended with a well-deserved victory by OMS. His final-round painting of a surreal cityscape was both impactful and imaginative. While there was a live DJ, he opted to wear earphones; muting out external distractions to create to the beat of his own drum.


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About Seamus Gearin

Séamus once found a $100 bill and gave it to the first person who passed by. He's regretted it ever since.