Glenn Priestley's Yonge Street Series

Tenya Mastoras
Jun 3, 2016 6:03PM

By Tom Smart

By the start of the early 1990s, Glenn Priestley had established himself as a figurative and landscape artist to whom attention was due. These two genres exert a forceful pull over artists, and they can serve as a kind of measure of ability and interpretive promise. 

In Priestley’s case, his talent and innate sense of visual poetry distinguished him among his contemporaries. Here was an artist who came to his subjects with a command of line and tone, a deep appreciation of colour theory, and the skillfulness of applying them to their best effects. He also had an acutely perceptive eye to human nature, and an understanding of the ways gesture and manner can convey either the beauty of inwardness or some raw truth in the body politic. These are Priestley’s defining traits as a contemporary Realist. 

Single figures, self-portraits, multiple figure groupings, dramatic, raucous tableaux of boxers and punk rockers, random people lost in thought, others caught in the headlight glare of the artist’s pen, pencil and brush, this portfolio constitutes the range of his artistic taxonomy.

Landscape: the genre in Priestley’s hand comes in for wide interpretation. There are the suburban streetscapes that are exceptional both for their ordinariness as for the way they are depicted. More than just mind-numbing banalities, Priestley invited us to look closely is to allow the miracle of a perceptual moment to take hold of us. Beyond the facts of visual description, he tells us that finely tuned and colorfully complex painterly essays can elevate mind and soul. He riffs off what we take for granted as just another street and transforms it into a kind of zen lesson on interconnectivity.

There is something behind the zoned out eyes of his people stuck on a bus, in the bored crowd at a carnival, in the screaming audience watching midget wrestlers that wants release. Priestley’s gift is that he perceives in the maelstrom of the urban landscape something that is true, and yet deeply strange.

Recognizable yet foreign, these are the paradoxes that define the edges of his subject matter. On the one hand, the exquisite lyricism of his line and the wondrously sensual way in which he knits together a crowd of people into a unified aggregation seduce us into his compositions. The invitation to roam around imaginatively in a Priestley picture, to be involved in the story and drama of a composition’s narrative, to be just one more soul in roiling current moving up and down the street is just too good to pass up. We give ourselves over to this artist’s magic of creating a believable, coherent reality as art. By suspending our disbelief, the world as Priestley sees and describes it tells us much about where we come from and where our paths might, in fact, be taking us.

Such is the allure of Priestley’s masterfully conceived compositions. The manner of their making appears out of time. Technique and application have a genetic code that goes back to earlier centuries when drawing and painting, line and colour were all harnessed by talent to convey a seamless truthfulness of thought, a depth of insight and inspiration that held to human axioms, and which formed the seeming incoherence of day-today reality into something understandable and just a little less chaotic. 

The essence of immutable values of craft grafted to plumb ordinary crudities of modern urban life, Priestley mines the rich promise that this mash up provides. Toronto’s Yonge Street is the very real and also mythical stage on which his theatre of the real and the strange is played out through the characters that passed before his eyes. 

In many significant respects, Priestley’s Yonge Street series brings together the several threads that have defined his work of the past three decades. There is a nearly musical sense of lyricism in the way he uses lines to describe his subjects. His characters and scenes appear to have been conjured onto the surfaces of his paintings and drawings through the graceful way he handles lines. Line provides the energy and gesture that animates his compositions. In their flowing cadences, Priestley has an unerring sense of unifying elements of this turbid street into coherent visual statements. 

Priestley also displays a highly attuned sensitivity to the way colour relationships, harmonies and tones can define his pictorial spaces. There is a tight, taut calibration of hue and value to incarnate a reality that is believable, imagistic, yet which remains compellingly artistic. Line, colour, tone, gesture, space, all of these formal elements he puts to the service of giving life to his uncanny reality.

The subjects themselves, all flowing from the mosh pit that is Yonge Street, also witness the simple fact that Priestley never abandoned his interest in describing the cold, urban environment. However, in this series, the downtown main drag has supplanted the mind numbing sameness of the suburban street. His choice of Yonge Street likely also reflects a kind of ambivalent affection that the “strip” holds for one of Toronto’s native sons. Its magnetic pull promises delights and dangers found behind the tawdry doors and buildings that are the street’s fusty palisades.

Priestley brings to this very Canadian subject, though, a quizzical manner. For him every face has a story. In the alluring pitches of charmers and hawkers, behind the glazed eyes of a be-speckled businessman, in the pantomimes of clowns and balloon vendors, Priestley teases out something peculiar but true. 

Beyond the surface veneer of this shopping district, Priestley decribes a kind of baseline character portrait of his hometown. He tells not just place-specific stories, but gives us a kind of wry, honest narrative that is loving and accusatory. 

Something is just a bit off in these depictions of a street we think we know. Priestley is just vague enough in telling us exactly what that disconnect is between what we expect to see and what really has fallen before our eyes to make the compositions’ unbalance a subject all by itself. 

In the kinetic interval, Priestley’s Yonge Street takes on a very different character. It moves into a place of open-ended allegory populated by human types that drift in and out of consciousness in the manner not unlike a medieval pageant, whose purpose is to expose conceit and provide moral lessons on how best to traverse the road of life. 

Priestley’s Yonge Street is a similarly fraught path, attended by all sorts of characters and filled with challenges that need to be exposed and overcome, not the least of which are disinterest, indifference and apathy. His street is a carnival to be embraced, a slough of anxiety to be navigated, and a delightful, truthful, fabulous, and roiling community of living souls.

Tenya Mastoras