The Wall

Garish and ghoulish images highlight  an intriguing way to decorate.

Photography by Curtis Comeau

My foodie friends raved about Bar Bricco for months: The food’s to die for! You must try the egg yolk raviolo! So good, it’s foodgasmic! (Note to self: Since when is sex like a runny egg yolk?) They love Daniel Costa‘s new-to-Edmonton twist on Italian dining (Our city’s first and only spuntini and wine bar); they love its night-clubby atmosphere, edgy decor and great music. And they even adore its smallness (So tiny it’s impossible not to talk to your neighbours).

But, now that I’m finally here, what’s really blowing my mind is none of the above. It’s something not even on the menu. It’s the wall. Or more accurately, the artwork covering an entire wall by the seating area. I’ve never seen anything like it. In a word, it’s awesome. (As in “awe-inspiring,” the word’s original meaning before it became the most overused adjective ever.)

The facing photo shows the mural, which is helpful – otherwise I’d use up all my adjectives and still wouldn’t do it justice. From across the room, it looks like a mural, but it’s not painted onto the wall. It’s attached, like wallpaper, but it’s not wallpaper either.

When you look, do you feel a tug at your subconscious, teasing up memories from Art History 101? Maybe of some artist from the early Renaissance period? Yes, that’s it: The piece is reminiscent of the work of Hieronymus Bosch, the painter from what’s now The Netherlands, the strange dude who did surreal artwork about five and a half centuries before Salvador Dali was born.

It looks like Bosch’s style with the fantastically bizarre, almost grotesque creatures and landscapes, but from which work? I quickly Google “Bosch,” browsing through his collected works. Something’s off though … nothing matches what’s on Bar Bricco’s wall. Yet a close examination reveals many impressions, like fragments from larger works.

Is this a modern-day Bosch mash-up? There’s the shocking image of two giant ears, pierced by a massive sword, with ant-like humans crawling on and below them from “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Creatures from “Haywain” that look like bee-dragonfly-human hybrids fly in the sky along with a sailboat of monstrous fish and a contorted nude from “The Temptation of St. Anthony;” the giant nude baby who tramps through a forest holding on to what looks like a walker is from “Christ Child with a Walking Frame.” And that strange collection of singers popping out of an enormous egg, that’s Bosch’s “The Concert in the Egg.”

While the piece is based on Bosch’s work, the designers behind the mural are an Edmonton couple.

IN THE STUDIO

Ringo the calico cat rubs against my legs and I hear the soothing sounds of Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach as I enter a sunlit loft in Edmonton’s warehouse district – the studio and living space of designers/artists Keith-yin Sun and Judi Chan. The husband-and-wife team are the creative minds behind Vanguard Works and have worked together since 2006.

The two love to draw (Chan’s first solo exhibition in 2011 was a collection of her pencil drawings of Ringo) and so Studio Tipi was born in 2009 to feature their illustration work and distinguish it from the work they do for Vanguard’s clients. As Studio Tipi, they’ve done illustrations for magazine like Monocle in the United Kingdom and a number of children’s magazines; they’ve also created greeting cards and three series for the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Their illustration style is bright, clean and colourful, with folk-art and vintage influences. It feels happy, as does their studio, which is enlivened by collections of vintage toys, folk-costumed dolls and children’s books. Yet these two created Bar Bricco’s mural, with its darkly desolate images of hellish punishment for indulging in the evils of the flesh. It doesn’t seem to fit, not with their personalities, their other work, or their environment.

Sun explains that, while Studio Tipi features their personal style, Vanguard Works is all about what the client wants and how to best achieve those goals. So if a client wants something dark and edgy, as Costa did for Bar Bricco, then that’s what they’ll produce. “You have to remove your own ego from the process and really listen. You can’t say: Well, this is what I like, so let’s do this and make it work.”

Sun and Chan had never worked with Costa before this project. A mutual friend recommended them when Costa was casting for ideas on how to make Bar Bricco’s feature wall special. Although Costa knew exactly what he wanted for the rest of the bar’s decor, he’d hit a literal creative wall when it came to that part of the restaurant.

Some brainstorming sessions at Corso 32, Costa’s restaurant next door, sparked the direction. “Italian Renaissance art was mentioned. We both thought that would be cool, and the project developed from there,” says Costa. “But I still wanted something unexpected, not the usual works like Michelangelo or Botticelli.”

Drawing on Chan’s fine-art knowledge, they settled on Bosch. “We actually cheated a bit,” Sun says. “He’s not Italian. Yet his work – edgy and not too comfortable – seemed perfect for the dark, on-the-edge ambience Daniel was after.”

As the couple immersed themselves in researching the paintings of the Renaissance, the work’s direction emerged. The fresco-like mural wouldn’t replicate a painting, it would be a new imaginary landscape created by merging elements from many different paintings, mostly Bosch, but others as well.

The next step was taking very high-resolution photographs, not scans, of their final choices from the pages of art books. Then, using these digital files like jigsaw pieces of a puzzle, the new work emerged. Hundreds of different elements were used, with the overall colour adjusted for a seamless look.

Sun and Chan don’t expect viewers will take everything in at once. And, knowing that, they included some of Bosch’s more bizarre, even scary imagery for the curious and intrigued who will look closely. “They’re not immediately obvious, but you can discover them, like finding Easter eggs,” says Sun. For example, look for the large matron frying up some meat for supper. But it’s human meat; a man’s head and legs poke out of her oversized frying pan. Or, find the eerie tree in the forest that transforms into a human face if you stare look enough.

Costa says the piece gets different reactions. “Some people are really, really interested; others don’t notice it at all. Or, they take a while to notice it, then it becomes a conversation piece.”

And what will diners think when they notice elements that someone wouldn’t usually expect to see while eating a fine meal and drinking some lovely wine? “It hasn’t happened yet,” Costa says, “but I expect some might approach me and say: Hey, there are knives going into people’s asses in this painting and that offends me.

“But I won’t take that as a negative. If I’m making everyone happy, I’m not challenging the public and I’m not doing my job. Too many people hold back, thinking they need to tone everything down, make things more approachable. I don’t make those compromises with my food and we didn’t with this work either. Conforming to what everyone thinks everyone wants … that’s not the way. It’s important to have breaks from the mundane. I say embrace it, don’t fight it.”

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