Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 2, No. 5, 2003

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By Sarah M. Bagnall &
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal


© Kapil HarnalMontreal born artist Kapil Harnal (1977-) obtained his BA in Fine Arts from Concordia University, has exhibited in Montreal at The Lawless Gallery (1999), Galerie Schorer (1999-2001), The VA Gallery at Concordia University (2001), La Galerie 1637 (2001). His first solo exhibition was at Galerie Entre-Cadre (2002).


The art of Kapil Harnal is an interesting addition to the contemporary Canadian art context. His work evokes the baroque and classical styles through a realist approach to drawing, colour and use of light. He employs unique forms of representation that imbue his paintings with modernity and freshness. And while he portrays people, he does not make portraits. As he explains, “The individual comes into the concept rather than the concept being about the individual.” Harnal creates paintings that reconfigure the traditional notion of portraiture by juxtaposing his refined technique with unique and often humorous concepts. Through this sometimes light and comical approach, Harnal serves notice that he does not want to load his paintings with complex ideas. However, some of Harnal’s paintings do in fact carry a strong message and could be interpreted through a wide range of associations: in some instances, the messages can be quite controversial. That he does not view himself as a symbolist or conceptual painter is beside the point seeing that once a work of art is out of the hands of an artist it can be construed in an infinite number of ways.

Harnal is undoubtedly a talented and skilled artist who has a strong command over colour and light. Some of his earlier works demonstrate the eagerness and curiosity of a young painter experimenting with different media and forms of representation. At one point, he was interested in reproducing frozen frames from films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish. To these images, he added his own light and colour schemes in order to achieve the desired effect. At around the same time, he became intrigued by surrealist concepts, such as found objects, applied to The Sleeper, which features a sleeping nude woman framed by the head board of a bed to the effect that the image of a sleeping figure is so closely tied to the idea of a bed it pre-empts the free association characteristic of surrealism. “Duchamp would have been rolling over in his grave over that one,” joked Harnal.

The Sleeper
oil on wood, 34 x 18 in.
© Kapil Harnal

His most recent work features the presence of the female figure, usually portrayed nude or scantily dressed. This contrasts with his earlier, classical representation of women that allowed Harnal to hone his talent as a figurative painter. But it was only after his peers criticized him for not pushing the envelope enough that he began to experiment with new forms.

His current Face Card Series reveals Harnal’s predisposition to classical representation, yet what is new here is the painter’s own modern and imaginative twist.

The Face Card Series is a technically striking collection of paintings that depicts human figures in the form of playing cards. The idea a card could be likened to a canvas came to him in 1996 while painting a traditional card for an art class.

In the Queens of Hearts and Clubs, as in all other 'cards', the dual-figured representations are not mirror images of each other, so the viewer, to his/her pleasant surprise, uncovers movement and vital presence in what would otherwise be a motionless and flat form of representation. If only Harnal had pushed creative envelope even further by exploring the symbolic and dualistic possibilities that are already implicit in the work; instead, he sticks to his stated artistic intent: to produce work that is light and disarming.

Queen of Hearts
oil on panel, 48 x 32 in.
© Kapil Harnal
Queen of Clubs
oil on panel, 48 x 32 in.
© Kapil Harnal

Queen of Apples and Peaches
oil on panel, 48 x 32 in.
© Kapil Harnal
Queen of Diamonds
oil on panel, 48 x 32 in.
© Kapil Harnal

Queen of Potatoes
oil on panel, 48 x 32 in.
© Kapil Harnal

If historically cards have been used to reveal hidden meanings, in Harnal’s series several of the pieces can be viewed at ‘face’ value. His approach is often refreshingly tongue and cheek. In The Queen of Potato Chips, he has added his own comical suit and in The Queen of Clubs, he indulges in a clever play on words by painting his model dressed in a golfing shirt and cap coupled with a golf club in hand. Other works in the series are more serious and emotive. The expression of the woman depicted in The Queen of Hearts suggests a lover caught off guard: here, the work’s intimacy is achieved through the Queen’s playful expression. However, in the Queen of Spades, a sinister quality pervades as the bare breasted woman looks connivingly at the viewer while fingering the blade of a spade.

Some of Harnal’s general depictions of women follow the historical view that designates the female as the embodiment of evil and sin. His partially or completely nude women can be read as having exhibitionist tendencies while the only male in the series, (The King), is a double portrait of Harnal himself, is fully and ornately clothed. Whether or not this double standard is intentional, the artist bares some responsibility for the effects. To wit: the gratuitous nudity that appears throughout the series distracts the viewer from penetrating the deeper meanings in, for example, The Queen of Spades which has a powerful content. So again with all due respect to the artist’s intended unserious subject matter, his images evoke other evident associations.

Queen of Spades
oil on panel, 48 x 32 in.
© Kapil Harnal

Harnal is currently working on a series of corset images where once again he runs the risk of authoring perhaps unintended but very problematic associations. In Corset I, Harnal portrays himself tying up the laces of the corset on the woman in front of him. He depicts his body with strong movement, whereas the woman holds onto the bed frame with a compliant expression on her face. Corsets have been long recognized within feminist discourse as a symbol of female oppression. The movement and expressions of the figures in this painting could indeed reinforce these associations.

Corset I
oil on linen, 72 x 48 in.
© Kapil Harnal

Harnal is still a young man whose evolution as an artist is a work in progress. He should be made aware of the danger that if he continues to portray the female as an object instead of an object of contemplation, his work may become stereotyped as exploitive, which would be a shame because in much of it his voice is strong. When Harnal takes full charge of that voice, the clarity that is now only haphazard in his painting will be the foundation upon which his reputation as a significant artist is established.


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