Navigating the landscape in art
I write this blog from the kitchen of a lovely Toronto home I am visiting, Americano & chocolate croissant for dipping employed by my side. I mention this as I have been thinking a lot about my Toronto connections and how they play into my rural life.
On a recent Tweetchat organized by Akimbo and the Art Gallery of Mississauga there was a lively discussion about landscape art. Other Tweeters knocked back and forth theories about genius loci, the Group of Seven and how the rugged Canadian landscape shapes our artistic destiny. I was charmed by the urban voice grappling with how to best revere the natural world while decrying its domination as subject matter in our current art market. I’ve written many a word on how landscape art gets a raw deal in this country. While most of our population lives in cities and far away from the kinds of areas the Group of Seven painted there is an overriding belief that our nearly ‘empty’ landmass gets far too much ink and respect, and that as a subject matter it seems to these new doyens of the urban fold, irrelevant.
People love landscape art however because it sentimentalizes what we believe to be the untouched glory of the planet. We are programmed to think of the wilderness as something beyond us; this dualism, man and nature, has come to be the prevalent thinking on nature. I’ve always thought it to be a dangerous belief and can add to our neglect and often contempt of nature. It is far easier to pollute if you think of the land as outside yourself as opposed to it being part of you. And if you live in a city things like lakes and trees become abstract ideas. In fact I agree with what historian Simon Schama thinks; that natural landscapes are cerebral first, water, rock and trees second.
It is very difficult for people including artists to separate their emotionally learned attachment to this dualism, and reflect on the wilderness without sentiment. While artists seem to be all over super inflated intellectual concepts of identity and ‘place’, throwing around terms like luminal subjectivism, they really have a hard time not looking at the wilderness and thinking, “ahh how peaceful and pure.” Canoeing was mentioned many times during the Tweetchat and frankly, I am fairly sick and tired of discussing the Group of Seven as landscape artists since painting shorelines and trees just doesn’t seem to be that revolutionary to me. I prefer to think of them as our modern masters who like Van Gogh ushered in a way of painting and looking at the world without a pastoral viewpoint. They depicted the landscape as the word originally meant; that it was land forms that humans named.
What I mean by this is that given what we learned about the world in the 19th century, things like electricity, psychology, socialism, atheism and that resources from the earth were making our life easier, mass produced knives and forks for instance, the planet’s purity and wonders ceased to be an untouched plain. It was in fact being transformed into something else by our dominance. By the end of the century it seemed very unlikely deep thinkers such as Van Gogh and the G7 would be able to paint landscape scenery without elements of emotive turmoil. They put themselves into the landscapes; breaking down the dualism. Their paintings are reflective not only of a shoreline but of a way of thinking, feeling and reacting. Like religious art centuries before, landscape art had become iconic and its reverberations were as loaded as any philosophical revelation.
A short digression: on a trip to Lake Superior many years ago my partner and I tried to find the vantage point that Lawren Harris sat in order to paint his great Pic Island painting. Many attempts were made: up and down hillsides, getting trapped in sand, getting rescued and taken up again in the back of a pick-up. We gave up realizing that unless we were willing to strap on a back pack and walk into an unforgiving wilderness or go by boat (neither were we remotely prepared for) we were never going to find it. Tired and dirty we ended our day with a beer drinking to Mr. Harris and his made up shoreline.
Harris probably rented a boat and driver since he was a millionaire however this whole episode got me thinking about how a landscape is in fact part external and part internal. It propelled me to realize that if I was going to depict it through art I’d better get my thoughts and feelings sorted about it as a concept.
Walking down King Street with dozens of condos being built, jack hammers and machines’ roaring away is as much a part of our landscape as any quiet waterfall with a deer sipping on its shoreline. I said on the Tweetchat that if I had a purpose to my art making it was to erase that line between the urban and rural. When we drive into the city it is a journey from forests and rock through meadows and fields to villages and highways on to subdivisions and then the glorious chaos that is the city which sits on the lake where the glaciers finished their journey too.
Once I stood on a pier right under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, below was a tiny beach. That beach is my sextant. Its symbolism has navigated my thinking about what the wilderness is. New York is a wilderness we built from the very resources that make up that tiny beach.
Pictures from Historical Brooklyn and Group of Seven sites. Also, please take a look at Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama, it’s kind of my ‘bible’.
Landscape art, it’s everywhere! Sarah Milroy for Canadian Art on the G7 Dulwich exhibition.