Preview: Nick Bantock works magic at the Museum of Outdoor Arts

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Nick Bantock is charming and soft-spoken, hardly and at the same time every bit the superstar that he's become, all because of the unique little idea he had twenty years ago for a book that's also a collagist's romantic assemblage containing pull-out letters and postcards, all loaded neatly between two covers. That first volume of an ever unfolding saga, Griffin and Sabine, was published in 1991; expected to sell 10,000 copies, it ended up a runaway bestseller and kicked off a whole lineage of books filled with Bantock's magical imagery and storytelling. The idea for Griffin came to Bantock simply enough: "I was at the post office picking up my mail, and it was just the usual garbage," he explains. "But I noticed that the guy next to me had this beautiful letter. I wondered why I didn't ever get any good mail. I thought about writing to myself, but that wouldn't really do. So I thought about what it would take to create the perfect correspondence. It would have to have a mysterious love base, some intellectual intrigue, and then there would have to be a pictorial aspect, to capture what it's like to open an envelope: It's like sex and Christmas all at once!

"It was self-indulgence," he adds. "I was just playing." But his serendipity crossed paths with plain dumb luck and, long story short, someone from Chronicle Books happened to see the dummy and liked it.

More than twenty books later, the prolific Bantock, who lives on Saltspring Island, British Columbia, in the gulf between Vancouver and Victoria, has somehow ended up hanging his first complete retrospective, a massive collection of 250 works, right here in Englewood, at the Museum of Outdoor Arts. The show, which aptly rose, like Bantock's career, from serendipitous beginnings, opens on Saturday evening with a free reception. And the night before, MOA will host a Collector and Connoisseur VIP preview from 6 to 9 p.m. That event costs $100 a head, benefits the museum and includes cocktails and hors d'oeuvre with Bantock. I took a walk today through the half-installed exhibit with Bantock, a dreamy visual alchemist who seems as though he's really most happy in his studio, yet is thankful for the successes in life that allow him to do just that. Divided into several themed rooms, each riffing off of, but not necessarily beholden to, one of his books, the retrospective goes full circle. And since Bantock switched from books to painting four years ago, due in part to what he calls the "death throes of publishing," it starts at the museum entrance with the past -- original works from Griffin and Sabine -- and works its way back, layer upon layer, into the present. He explains where he now lives as an artist in terms of duende, the spirit of the earth. (Federico Garcia Lorca explained it thus: "The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.'"). "For the first ten or fifteen years, you learn your craft, you learn to see, to respond to what you're seeing," Bantock says. "Then as you mature, you're able to give yourself up to the notion of duende, to reverse the process. You reach a point where the picture begins to tell you what it needs. You, in a sense, become the servant to your art, and because of that, every single day, you will always be surprised at what you do." His recent large paintings, a pair of triptychs reminiscent of Japanese screens, one all cool blues, the other hot oranges, truly show where the duende is leading him. In his head, the pair is meant to face one another from opposite walls; they seem to depict a miasma of creation or celestial bodies exploding, as if they'd been painted by Redon...on Red Bull. But you will also see an amazing variety of collages, assemblages, shadowboxes, postcards and paintings both small and large-scale in the MOA exhibition. In one cranny, works from (or inspired by) The Museum at Purgatory, The Egyptian Jukebox and The Artful Dodger rub elbows: The room, which to me seems the most personal, is dominated by a large wall-hung shadowbox featuring nine themed compartments filled with artifacts, objects and treasures, none of which is nailed down (their arrangement does change, according to Bantock's whim). Also in this room is a shadowbox self-portrait, with doors meant to open only partway so that the four-eyed devil inside only stares at the viewer obliquely, half-hidden from view (there's a story behind this, about riding the Tube late at night in London and seeing your own shadowy reflection running by). A three-dimensional painting in another corner, The Artful Dodger, Bantock describes as his alter ego. Another room, the Fog and Sand Room, contains what Bantock calls "Dubious Documents" -- faux mail and postcards, with stamps from imaginary countries. (So enamored of postage stamps is Bantock that he is a member of the Canadian stamp jury.) And another features drawings made for a new translation of The Canterbury Tales.

As I walk from room to room, I fear my jaw will fall closer and closer to the floor with each step as I begin to realize just how much care goes into each and every piece. So much detail. But, easy as it is to call it magic, it's not really legerdemain that Bantock practices. Clearly, his studio is his playground, where he whips up the sheen of time and weather and decay through experimenting with techniques and materials. Yes, he says, he spends a lot of time experimenting. He plays with materials. He's curious. Leonardo da Vinci, he notes, "was neither artist nor scientist. He was just a curious person.

"I don't mean to compare myself to Leonardo, but that's what I am: a curious person."

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