Interview | Trate | Emotive Brutes

Canadian artist Trate is causing a stir in London’s art world, and this will intensify next year when he holds his first U.K show. Digby Warde-Aldam tracked him down to his east end lair, Trate Studios on the Regent’s Canal, to find out who the hell he is…

It is a miserable Thursday evening in Bethnal Green, and the streets around the Regent’s Canal have taken on the character of a film noir stage set. The sulphuric glow of street lamps ripples back on the water, and the creeping sensation that something terrible is about to happen is hard to shake. This is not eased by the fact that I am enroute to meet a self-taught artist about whom I know next to nothing, a mysterious painter known only as Trate. His paintings, more to the point, suggest the hand of an intense character. They are expressive, angsty and deeply serious works that wouldn’t look out of place in the penthouse of a particularly cerebral Batman villain. His signature style consists of sharply coloured backgrounds that project a menagerie of long-necked, androgynous figures who toe a precarious line between elfin beauty and outright grotesquerie. In short, they do not look like the work of an artist with much time for trivial interviews.

As it turns out, thank God, he is extremely good company, a slim, shaven-headed ex-skater who looks a lot younger than his 45 (or so) years. He has a conversational tendency to slip from high seriousness to chummy informality without missing a beat, and crucially, without sounding affected. Within moments of walking into his vast studio space, he offers me a beer – we get through many in the four and a half hours I end up spending there – and explains that his condition of anonymity comes less from any sense of inflated self-importance than from the fact that, in his own words, he is “quite a private person.” The alias, he explains, is a variation on the word “trait.” “I’m interested in capturing the different imperfections in people’s faces and bodies and exploring emotive states,” he explains. “I’ve been making art since I was a teenager – doing sculpture and eventually painting. It’s a point of continuity for me.”

Continuity is something of a key word here, because his CV is anything but consistent. I never learn Trate’s real name, but in the course of the interview, I do establish the following biographical information: having grown up in a small town in Canada, he has followed the kind of journeyman path Augie March might have done had he grown up listening to punk. Interspersed with eclectic university studies in Canada, France and the UK, he has variously lived on a farming commune; been a tree-planter in  isolated bush camps in Northern Canada – a job requiring daily helicopter transport to the forests and a constant lookout for grizzly bears; undertaken UN humanitarian work in Bamako, Mali (“an amazing place”); and worked in finance in Mexico City and now in London.

It was in Mexico that Trate began hanging his own paintings on the wall of his apartment –  and was pleasantly surprised by the strong reaction of visitors. The works, he explains, are not portraits, but all the same, the figures they depict have not sprung from nowhere. “There are always elements and traits you pick up from people,” he says. And though he has exaggerated most elements drawn from life, “people do sometimes pick up on certain things.”The eyes of his figures are particularly striking, giving off glances that are by turns reproachful, plaintive and adoring. No wonder. “We’re all very basic,” Trate explains. “You can try to hide something, but the eyes give a lot away.”

Nothing in these paintings is pre-ordained, however. Trate starts on his canvases with next to no conception of the finished product, allowing his circumstances to dictate the direction the image will take. “Whether I’m in a dark mood or a light mood, no one element determines how a painting will turn out. But often your mind is a head of you: step back [from the canvas] and you’ll be surprised […] either I’m moved by it, or I’m not.” If he isn’t, à la Francis Bacon, he just destroys it.

Trate’s artistic influences are varied. Now and again, you pick out a point of reference, whether intended or not: the paintings contain hints of Schiele; a bold Patrick Caulfield outline here, an abrupt Bernard Buffet gesture there; there are even touches of the so-called “New Neurotic Realism” so avidly touted by Charles Saatchi around the turn of the Millennium. He himself admits looking to the Mannerists of the late Italian Renaissance, and I can’t help notice a book of paintings by the great Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson (1877 – 1917) lying on his coffee table. However, he draws far more on music and literature than he does from art history.

The musical influence is handily demonstrated by the first-rate record collection Trate keeps in his studio: in the course of our conversation, we listen to everything from the first Velvet Underground LP to the Bullitt soundtrack, to Scottish electronica duo Boards of Canada’s excellently titled 1998 album Music has the Right to Children. Records, and in particular Russian and Eastern European classical music, help to establish a certain rhythm when painting.

Books, however, are a more significant inspiration entirely. Despite childhood dyslexia Trate has been a voracious reader since his youth. He names Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Millennium, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Mort à crédit and – tellingly –  the works of Camus, Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir as particularly important. “Painting is a way of coming to terms with ontology and the existentialism that defines us as humans,” he says as we look at one work informed by Camus’s L’Étranger. “But forgive me if I sound like a pretentious ass.”

He doesn’t. But one mystery remains. Although he has been in London for almost seven years, it is only recently that he took the decision to publicly exhibit his work. The question is: why now? “I just want to share it and see where it goes,” he says, adding that there is “no prejudged direction” for where he’d like public exposure to take him. This is all the more intriguing for the fact he, Trate, still very much the DIY punk kid at heart, has taken the process of exhibiting entirely into his own hands.

Rather than seeking gallery representation, he has chosen to show his works in his own studio, which will double up as a showroom-cum-salon for future projects. This way, visitors will be able to see his work in the setting in which it was created, hopefully allowing for insights one might not perceive in a traditional gallery space. Plus, as Trate adds, “it’s a cool place to have a party.”

It’s going to be interesting to gauge the public reaction to his work when he opens his debut exhibition here in February. For one thing, art can take on a new character entirely when it has an audience, and Trate’s peculiar but compelling paintings are likely to spark some strong emotional reactions. For another –  if my experience hanging around with him is anything to go on –  that party should be very fun indeed.

Emotive Brutes will take place from 7 February – 2 March 2019 at Trate Studios, 45 Vyner Street, London E2 9DQ. For more information, visit Trate Studios.