State of the Arts – Canadian landscape painting

Victoria Ward

Kim Dorland’s ‘wilderness tips’

This blog is about Kim Dorland’s McMichael exhibition that I saw unfortunately on the last day and how landscape painting seems now to be an act of pure punk rebellion that is insisting on lasting.

After two years I realized that if I subtitled my blogs I would find them easier. At 89 and growing, it was getting difficult to go back and find references and so forth without some kind of guide. I thought that a date would work but then since I rarely know what day it actually is in the present sense, I needed something more specific to delineate and annotate my blogs from each other.

While that first paragraph may have hinted that I live in chaos, I assure you I do not. In fact I am as tidy and organized an artist as you can find. Well, not until I finally made it to Kim Dorland’s You Are Here at the McMichael Gallery at the beginning of this month. I made it sadly to the last day because every other effort was hobbled by snow, ice and other wintry obstacles that make a place like Kleinberg hard to get to between November and January. I wish I had been able to get there sooner and preached its worthiness to all.

Dorland’s exhibition was described as a response to the residency he had there at the McMichael and particularly to the work of Thomson. Dorland admits to being a fanatic. What I found was a prolific artist whose work bursts with energy, and whose process (a room was dedicated to his photos, inspiring ideas, sketches – all organized in sublime anarchy) is so robust that at times some of the individual paintings seemed to want to bring down the building on top of itself; so much paint is applied to many of the works that they had to have screws built into the composition in order for him to keep the piles of it in place. These pieces have an unrelenting impossibility to them. I appreciated their audacity even if I wasn’t sure if I liked them.

Dorland's French River. This is huge! and it captures the elegant chaos of the place.
Dorland’s French River. This is huge! and it captures the elegant chaos of the place.

Dorland comes across as a thoroughly authentic outdoorsy type; canoe, campsites, axe, guns, the whole thing but also an enormously tidy thinker and a very organized planner. I doubt crazy old Tom Thomson would have been able to pull off such a professional and intellectually complete endeavour. But perhaps that has little to do with the work in the exhibition as it does with how artists need to behave today; alcoholic messes need not apply anymore. Spray paint, day glo, recreating famous works, composites in triple and quadruplicate, gigantic canvases spanning an entire wall, self portraits, portraits of Tom, Dorland uses every possible technique to create a huge body of work that pushes the act of painting upon you as the viewer. This is bold, brassy stuff and I reveled in its unabashed adoration of both the Canadian landscape and painting in general.

I have a bias here because I like Kim’s work and have followed him for a several years now. I’ve often thought that he and a few more of us were standing firm on our desire to see painting through its tepid presence and into the future. Seeing this particular exhibition makes me believe that perhaps I was right.

Landscape painting has been a dirty term now for years. Used by galleries to appease their boards, added to juried shows to increase sales, and generally stuffed down the throats of the public who “don’t know any better”. It has been pimped by the art world long enough. A show of hands, “how many of you painters who use the landscape as subject matter get asked to be part of a fundraising scheme at a gallery but would never get an exhibition there?” I don’t need to see the actual hands, I know there are many – I am one of them.

The McMichael Gallery does hold a great collection of Group of Seven landscape paintings. But over the years it has reached out to many other kinds of art forms in order to stay relevant. You can’t blame them. However it was gratifying to see an artist respond to Thomson’s work with paintings. Good paintings. Dorland is a very good painter, not a hobbyist, not a weekend warrior but a serious craftsman with a great set of innovative twists to the genre. He’s also a guy’s guy in many ways which I found very refreshing. Plaid jackets and roughing it in the bush abound in his exploration of how to get into and reflect on the rugged landscape of Ontario. But what he mostly is, is a very organized, ambitious artist who is thinking about the future of his craft – this wasn’t a sentimental journey it was a slam dance into a future of possibilities.

Landscape painting will persist, it must. It is one of the only portals we have to enter into and understand how our Earth is changing in an intuitive, raw and profound way. What we need now is brash statements like Dorland’s. Great Canadian landscape artists are a mighty few but determined to bring the wilderness, it’s collisions with humans and all its terrifying indifference inside from the cold.

Pic courtesy the McMichael Gallery

5 thoughts on “State of the Arts – Canadian landscape painting”

  1. Funny, I said not two days ago how I need to plan a trip to the McMichael. I have never been. I find it funny how landscapes and art based on nature is somehow seen as passé or somehow too simplistic, too plebeian. Odd to take the view that being insular and focussing only on our human world is the more sophisticated, the more de rigueur. To have artwork that escapes our insular obsession with ourselves I think is now more important than ever. Whatever you may think of Farley Mowat I’m inclined to be fond of what he’s been trying to show us all these years. I certainly hope others will continue to do so as well.

    ““I feel terribly naked and isolated as a human being, feeling my species is going to die out through its own efforts. But if you can somehow learn to feel that you’re not isolated, that we’re part of a whole stream of life, then it’s not so frightening. It ceases to be important whether we disappear as a species.”

    1. Michael,

      The McMichael is lovely and was such a wonderful day trip when I lived in Toronto. I don’t get there often enough anymore. Please let me know what you think when you go. Thank you for reading and that wonderful quote from Farley Mowat (big fan!).

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