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"Characters." // Riley Tenove

Mythologizing pain—Edmonton artist creates eerie figures to flesh out the human subconscious

Social Creatures
By Riley Tenove; Harcourt House Artist Run Centre; until Sat., Sept. 7.

The figures in local artist Riley Tenove’s Social Creatures evoke both horror and sci-fi vibes, but his inspiration is drawn from real life. Tenove grew up wearing a back brace to help straighten his spine—his seventh and eighth vertebrae fused too early, causing it to curve—and the device felt both physically uncomfortable and unnatural. 

“I was always really into sci-fi, because I would just be thinking about metal and bodies, and stuff, and how it could try to force you into a shape,” Tenove says.

“It felt so unnatural and it’s really weird having the world tell you ‘This is what you need to be yourself’ when it’s just putting a lot of pain on your body all the time,” he adds. 

Among other things, the portion of the device that circled his body underneath the ribs dug in.

The experience, which lasted until Tenove had finished growing, influenced his art career in a number of ways. First of all, having to wear the back brace all the time made drawing a comfortable extracurricular choice.

“That’s the part of myself that I had confidence in,” he says.

“Below the depth.” // Riley Tenove

Tenove also did TaeKwondo for a number of years, but eventually learned that there were limits to what he could do.

“I found out—after several years of putting a lot of effort into this—that I inherently … couldn’t do certain kicks at the right angles and therefore I could never perform certain kicks right,” he says.

Tenove has always had an interest in figure drawing, and his experience has shaped the way he approaches it. He explains that in figure drawing, artists are taught to start with landmark points—“those are the points in your body where your bones and hips and such protrude, just enough to create a landmark”—but Tenove always starts with the spine and then throws in twists.

“Every once in a while, I would like [say] ‘Maybe this one’s spine is liquid,’” he says. “If you figure out the internal, you can actually figure out the outside a lot more.”

“Lost.” // Riley Tenove

Tenove has a diploma in Fine Arts from MacEwan University, which he finished in 2012. He says his education helped him take his drawings from simple doodles to more time-consuming pieces —although he still works with pen a lot.

Most of the pieces in Social Creatures were done with pen on different media, including paper and foam board. Tenove explains that using ink meant he had to go with whatever mistakes he made.

“I find a lot of them quite ugly, and some of them I’m really happy with—I’m like ‘Oh, that looks nice’—but that’s the inherent struggle with making mistakes and then having to go with it is that I think I’m just putting a sketchbook on a page,” he says, explaining that artists will usually pick what they like from many sketches to create the final composition. 

“But I’m starting to learn that, at least for this artwork, it’s important to the process to show the gobbledygook, because that is what the mind or the subconscious is like.”

“Instigators.” // Riley Tenove

Pain—both psychological and physical—is a theme in Tenove’s work, specifically the ways in which we mythologize pain as making us who we are. One of his paintings, “Instigators,” addresses this through superheroes, who almost always have some trauma as part of their origin story. But Tenove rejects the idea—which is especially prevalent in the DC universe—that character determines whether or not a traumatic origin births a hero or a villain.

“I’ve worked in enough social justice avenues to see … It’s amazing how many good people will still just do shitty things,” he says.

Tenove explains that he called the show Social Creatures because others often refer to the figures as ‘creatures’, but he says the point is that the figures in his drawings are humans—“even when they are blatantly monsters.”

Social Creatures is being shown alongside Dana Buzzee’s Witch Bitch Switch. Read the interview with Buzzee here.

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