ART SEEN: Father O'Leary Painting Challenges Equivalence Of Money And Virtue

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A likeness of Kevin O’Leary stares out of the painting but it’s a version of O’Leary much different than his TV media personality as a tough businessman.

The O’Leary depicted in oil paint on a red velvet background is wearing the Roman collar of a priest. Like a religious figure such as a saint, he has a halo. But it’s not like the traditional ring of spiritual light from medieval Christian art. This one is made up of the CBC logo, the network that he once appeared on regularly as a celebrity capitalist on the reality TV show Dragons’ Den.

Artist Marcus Bowcott is displaying the painting in an ornate frame that resembles the kind of classy, high-end wooden gilded frame you might find on an Old Masters painting. In reality, the frame is plastic: it looks expensive and historical but it’s really cheap and contemporary.

“I was initially going to do black velvet and when I saw the red — it reminded me of a Raphael painting of a pope,” Bowcott said.

Black velvet in art has a long history. According to one source, it may have been first used in the Islamic world where designs were woven into fabric. In the 13th century, Marco Polo is said to have introduced black velvet paintings to Western Europe. By the 19th century, English and American women were painting flowers on black velvet pillows.

By the 1970s, however, black velvet became associated with kitsch and cheesy art. There are examples of velvet in black and other colours as a surface for paintings of a number of popular figures such as Elvis Presley and Spock from Star Trek as well as various versions of dogs playing cards.  

Bowcott’s painting is called Father O’Leary/Our Celebrity Entrepreneur of Holy Virtue (above).

The painting includes text of a poem (below) by Nicolo di Rossi, a 14th century Italian lawyer, nobleman and priest. The poem refers to someone new to wealth who uses money to climb the social ladder of respectability.

Bowcott’s said O’Leary uses the media to spread a message that equates money with virtue.

“O’Leary is as much a symbol of business as the cleric’s collar is of religion and virtue,” he said.

“He poses business as virtue. There is a collision happening — and it’s not a healthy collision. There are fatalities.”

Don’t forget, Bowcott said, the Biblical story of Jesus Christ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple.

“There has always been a rub between the greater good and money,” Bowcott said.

“I guess that’s why I’ve conflated O’Leary with the cleric in the poem. The cleric is very clearly speaking about virtue. He’s coming from a self-consciously virtuous place.”

Father O’Leary is one of several works by Bowcott, along with ceramics by Laura Wee Lay Laq, in the exhibition fire/water at the Amelia Douglas Gallery at Douglas College.

Bowcott is the artist who made Trans Am Totem for the Vancouver Biennale. A maquette of Trans Am Totem, along with a painting of a Trans Am being held by a ship’s gantry crane over a vast body of water (below), are part of the fire/water exhibition.

Haida Proctor, oil on canvas, by Marcus Bowcott. It’s one of the works in the exhibition fire/water which includes ceramics by Laura Wee Lay Laq in the Amelia Douglas Gallery, Douglas College, to April 21. PNG

Bowcott challenges O’Leary’s philosophy of constant competition and survival of the fittest which he says is a perversion of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“(O’Leary) talks as if money itself is a virtue,” Bowcott said. “I find it repugnant.”

O’Leary is no longer on Dragons’ Den. He continues to build his TV persona on the Shark Tank, the U.S. version of the program.

O’Leary is using his media image to enter politics. He’s one of several contenders for leadership of the federal Conservative Party.

The text below by Niccolò de Rossi accompanies Bowcott’s Father O’Leary painting:

Money makes the man,

Money makes the stupid pass for bright,

Money buys the treasury of sins,

Money shows;

Money buys the pleasure giving women,

Money keeps the soul in bliss,

Money puts the plebe in high estate,

Money brings your enemies down.

And every man seems down without it,

The world and fortune being ruled by it,

Which even opens, if you want, the doors of paradise.

So wise he seems to me who piles up

What more than any other virtue

Conquers gloom and leavens the whole spirit.

Detail from Departure, oil on canvas, by Marcus Bowcott, in fire/water at the Amelia Douglas Gallery, Douglas College. PNG

The exhibition fire/water continues at the Amelia Douglas Gallery to Friday, April 21.

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