Megan Oldhues at Northern Contemporary

It is a balmy evening in Toronto’s Roncesvalles area, but the heat and humidity do little to deter the growing number of people coming to the Northern Contemporary Gallery. Graffiti-artist-turned-muralist Megan Oldhues’ art has brought admirers from all over to her first solo exhibition, Transient.

Installation view at the opening reception with Scrap Yard (in the bottom), 2023, printed in a mirror that reflects the room and the guests

Already established as an underground street and graffiti artist, Oldhues has spent a great deal of time freight-hopping across Canada. This life as a vagabond came with downsides, but ultimately shaped the artist she is today. Her travels introduced her to some of Canada’s best street artists and, with their guidance, Oldhues has expanded and cultivated her craft. Her murals can be found across Canada from Toronto to Saskatchewan, and from Puebla, Mexico to Mongaguá, Brazil, capturing the human condition in its simple and domestic moments.

The first piece to draw in the crowds is the recently-dried self-portrait, created in the early hours of the opening day. This mural portrays the artist in her element: among the mountains enjoying a quiet moment, and it’s particularly apt for this show as it painted directly on the gallery’s wall, making its lifespan transient too.

Megan Oldhues, Self-portrait, 2023, mural on the gallery’s wall

Oldhues’ paintings capture a balance of solitude and playful exploration. The rural, quiet life between the mountains of the West Coast and the prairies of the Midwest are the focus of her exhibition. A case of empty beer bottles, train carts and crossings, horseback riders, as well as vintage trucks portray an atmosphere of simplicity while the calming hues encourage reflection.

“Rural vagrance” are the words she uses, after a contemplative pause, to describe her exhibition. Oldhues is already her bags, preparing to fly out that evening to Romania. There’s a wall there in need of a mural and her talents are just the ticket.

The word “transient” encompasses not only the subject matter of her pieces, but also an important element of her life; train-hopping and -spotting and couch-surfing were paramount to the development of Oldhues’ artistic style and her way of life.

Through the Chain Link is a gripping piece. Oldhues’ training in realistic art is evident here. Her clever use of broad-brush strokes to denote detail is pleasing to the eye. The subject’s gaze, directed at something the viewer cannot see, adds elements of wistfulness and curiosity. What does she see that we cannot? What is she looking at? Paradoxically, the piece demands more yet it is complete as it is.

Megan Oldhues, Through the Chain Link, 2023

When asked about the history behind Through the Chain Link, Oldhues speaks about sharing her love of train-spotting with a friend and finding joy in recreating that memory. It seems each painting is a moment of time in her life, moments she fondly recalls and wants to preserve. Her process consists of taking photographs — capturing the moment — before rendering the images on canvas — painting the story, the feeling.

Oldhues also likes to add in a bit of play to her pieces: Dry Cold is a good example of realistic art, although the blue strip along the edge adds an element of abstraction “to break from the tradition of realism,” she explains to me.

Megan Oldhues, Dry Cold, 2023

It is clear in the way she answers my questions that Megan Oldhues is excitedly beginning a new phase in her artistic life. She is an artist with a career that is just beginning. As the title, Transient, suggests, her major artwork and her successes are yet to come.

Text and photo: Elin MacRae

*Exhibition information: Megan Oldhues, Transient, July 27 – August 1, 2023, Northern Contemporary Gallery, 420 Roncesvalles Avenue, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sun 12 – 6pm.

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