Tag Archives: gallery

Mystical Landscapes

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Living in the woods has a lot of advantages, like experiencing how the indifference of nature puts things in perspective.  I grew up thinking that this indifference was horrifying – something so many philosophers and poets have hung their hat on; that the natural world is full of death.  But what I realize now is that first, we are part of the natural world and secondly, our attempts at dominating it have failed so miserably that we are now in danger of our own extinction. So, you could say humans are all about death, and perhaps our culture is dystopian because of this switch. If you actually think human endeavour has any significance at all just watch a documentary about solar flares. In 1989 the entire province of Quebec lost power for nine hours due to one. And they’re getting worse.

I have been of late suffering from posting fatigue. I am deeply sympathetic with my American neighbours but one of the reasons I live where I do is so that I can turn things off and go skiing.  Like a church was to my ancestors, the woods are where I find meaning and where I feel free.  So the AGO exhibition Mystical Landscapes should really be in my wheel house however I had very little interest in what looked like a flake fest about the natural world.

I admit to being really turned off right away by a title like Mystical Landscapes since my artistic life is a Sisyphean journey; being a landscape painter marks you immediately as someone who is either an amateur, ancient or a flake. That the AGO, a gallery with a fairly sketchy reputation (awful block buster exhibitions mixed with overtly politically correct tones and generally not greatly organized so that you are always six deep with people in front of certain art works) has an exhibition with the word mystical in the title – well it makes me really, really wary. But, I saw that there were some cool paintings in it I have never seen before and we have a membership so… we went.

Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming emotional trip that Mystical Landscapes is. First off there is a ton of work in the exhibition you would never see unless you actually went to Stockholm or Norway or France. And some of the painting is divine. All of it landscape based. All of it wonderful, not a dud in the exhibition, well except for one or two silly pieces at the end regarding the cosmos but actually by the time I got there I found them charming. The strongest aspect of the exhibition is the curating. That is a line I almost never write.

Edvard Munch's The Sun in Mystical Landscapes - as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.
Edvard Munch’s The Sun in Mystical Landscapes – as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.

Organized by the AGO in partnership with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the exhibition’s intention is pretty clear and honestly still didn’t make me necessarily want to go: “The years between 1880 and 1930 were marked by rampant materialism and rapid urbanization. Disillusioned with traditional religious institutions, many European, Scandinavian and North American artists searched for an unmediated spiritual path through mystical experiences.” But this is exactly what the exhibition is about and the curators did very little to interfere with this very clear intent. Many of the artists in the exhibition may not have had straight forward mystical experiences (can you have a straight forward mystical experience?) but as in the case of Emily Carr who used gasoline to thin her oils, they may have had one unintentionally whether they were trying to or not.

I admit to feeling some nationalist pride at seeing the work of Canadian artists alongside titans of early twentieth century painting. But much more than that were the many ideas about landscape: urban dystopia, carnage of the land during war, depictions of sparkling cities with night skies, places of worship and work embedded in the ‘wilderness’, ominous and wondrous vistas, places of meaning, forests that are/were ineffable and sublime, and visions of the cosmos which until this period were only seen through telescopes by the naked eye.  Brought together, the famous and the not so famous work told an eschatological story without cliché.

One painting by Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley created during the last year of the First World War , Gas Chamber at Seaford I had seen before, perhaps at the War Museum. Here though it told a different story. As the men emerged from being gassed in a trench the surrounding hills and sky, seemingly untouched, competed directly for our attention. The split focus made you recognize that the earth is also a victim of our tragedies but also a resilient entity which we have no real power over. So timely was this piece that it had as many people surrounding it as both Van Goghs. One viewer, a war vet and artist told us that the thing about war is that you end up in these unfathomably beautiful places, in his case Afghanistan, and it creates a deep existential crisis. Three young women in head scarves listened in and nodded their heads.

These people, perhaps in another incarnation in their lives might have existed together in a war torn place, ravaged by a world gone mad. But here we all were, present in an art gallery together.  We were there to see how landscapes can be mystical and must be mystical if they are needed to be.

Mystical Landscapes has been extended to Feb. 12

Please read the Toronto Star Murray White’s excellent review as well.


State of the Arts – Elizabeth Fennell’s Attic of rebels

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Gallery in the Attic is a local arts hub & a place of rebellion

I have in my email box a ton of invites and notices about panel discussions regarding the arts. There seems to be lots and lots of talk about the arts and how we should be “going forward” or “creating in the 21st century”. Personally I can’t think of anything less appealing than sitting in one of those awful hotel ballrooms watching a power point presentation highlighted by declamations and applause every time someone says how important the arts is for our children. I’d rather see the money spent on people who open galleries and actually engage with the public. But because I feel this way I am deemed a misfit. I like the word rebel better, it’s a little more au currant.

I get it though. We need to talk to each other, I guess. The thing is I am not a joiner, a team player or even a participant really, but I do believe in ideas of inclusiveness because I understand how we do need each other. My world then is peopled by misfits like myself who also want to belong but in deeply uncompromising ways. Can this be achieved? It depends. The group I would join would have to be one of rebellion or at the very least run by rebels.

One particular rebel that I have come to adore is Peterborough’s Elizabeth Fennell, that indefatigable beauty who runs Gallery in the Attic and The Darkroom Project, both out of a classic old Ontario building on Hunter Street. It’s the kind of place people in Toronto used to live and work in before the city turned all the warehouses into condos. Elizabeth is a small town girl with a very large idea about the world and how to be creative in it. Her collective, Little Red Hen comprises of many of Peterborough’s artists; a composite of emerging, mid and senior, she sees room for everyone.

Here is Elizabeth Fennell at a recent opening giving someone her undivided attention. Contact is what it's all about & Elizabeth makes this her art.
Here is Elizabeth Fennell at a recent opening giving someone her undivided attention. Contact is what it’s all about & Elizabeth makes this her art.

One of the finer joys I have had in the art making world over the past few years (and for most of us there hasn’t been much joy recently) has been spending time at the Attic and meeting many creative people from every art form and age group. In Toronto my experience in the arts was always somewhat homogeneous; everyone seemed to be around the same age and from similar backgrounds. This however has changed completely since I left the city as people in rural areas are drawn together out of a different kind of camaraderie; we are bound together by the fact that we understand we all need space which is why we left the city in the first place. It’s a strong, emotional bond but one with a lot of room.

Elizabeth has captured this essence of creative living without the need of city excess. It’s that Williamsburg/Brooklyn approach, when the boroughs of NYC realized they didn’t have to cross a bridge to do something special. The Gallery in the Attic has comfy old fashioned furniture, a record player, a bar with Scotch, a darkroom for film development(!!) and an atmosphere of total creative enterprise while remaining inviting and unique. Elizabeth’s curatorial approach is to exhibit a solo artist in a tidy, perfect little white room, a duo or group effort in a brick walled space perfect also for bands that get to play at certain openings and then a main space where the collective gets to hang their work in a meticulously designed and perfectly annotated large group exhibitions.

Gallery in the Attic during  a recent opening. The art scene of Peterborough has come to rely on the gallery's funky, go to atmosphere.
Gallery in the Attic during a recent opening. The art scene of Peterborough has come to rely on the gallery’s funky, go to atmosphere.

The space and the initiative has all come about in the last five years which were possibly the worst on record for exhibiting and selling art work. Our world perhaps is crumbling or at least what it once was is crumbling. The current art scene, almost anywhere is a meniscus of serious desperation and frothy consumerism. I see however much hope in what Elizabeth is doing as her sense of community, rebellious “I’ll do it myself” streak and heads up organizational approach illustrate how one only has to roll up one’s sleeves, grab a drill and make it happen. I used to believe in this and lost my way somehow over the years; a creeping fear of time? Of course having a museum studies degree has helped Elizabeth focus her talents but I think it’s her outdoorsy, everyone into the canoe sensibility and a vividly smart & dark sense of humour that has helped make the Attic and who she is extraordinary.

I put some questions to Elizabeth about the Gallery and her ongoing challenges of running an independent art space:

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