Tag Archives: Group of Seven

Not a defense of landscape painting

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

A quick Google search will give you the definition and origin of the word landscape. A Middle Dutch word born out of putting the word land with ship (the figurative use of the word as in ‘condition’) and evolving into what we would now describe as an area of land or a depiction of a region of the natural world. Ultimately the word is now associated with paintings that illuminate geography, mostly those done by artists in the 19th and early 20th century.  And, for better or worse it also makes a lot of people think of images of trees, mountains and lakes.

I was at a conference last year when I happened to sit in on a presentation by a group of people who suggested that landscape painters were actually a patriarchal problem that eschewed depicting Aboriginal people because they were for the most part racist.  That anyone drawn to work about the natural world without Inuit or Aboriginal people in it was in denial of colonialism’s ruinous history.  I was deeply offended however I don’t get publicly offended that often and these people were nice and young so I let it pass. But, I am an artist dedicated to depicting the natural world and I have spent two decades theorizing on it, philosophizing about it and basically creating what would amount to Phd on the subject via the hundreds of books/essays I’ve read and the thousands of hours I’ve spent in  the wilderness. I actually moved into the forest to be embedded in my subject matter.

Regardless this opinion, that landscape art work is ultimately just a rouse to push a white, racist agenda regarding the natural world is just that, an opinion. It’s a theory as good or bad as any other and as it might slowly gain traction in Canada, you will no doubt read more and more about this nasty practice of spending time outdoors, soaking up the Earth’s bounty and interpreting it with oil and acrylic on canvas and wood.

At one time the only threat I had to the intellectual rigour of my work was by hobby painters or those that assumed that landscape painting was a hobby art.  When I told some people I created landscape art work they would immediately say they did too and would regale me with tales of how once or twice a year they would sit in their backyard and paint their peonies. If I told other artists they assumed that I sell poppy paintings on Etsy. If I told curators they’d roll their eyes and then politely say that they have storage areas full of paintings of lakes. And then there were members of my art community who would discuss on social media at length how sick and tired they were of the Group of Seven and aren’t we as a nation over this whole ‘our wilderness is amazing’ thing? Over time I disengaged with people about what I do because it became harder and harder to describe as I was steadily pushed into a defensive position. I honestly think the worst thing an artist can do is defend what they do. I will never defend what I do as my art work isn’t for anybody but me and those who are drawn to it.

Fishing scene by Quvianatulik Parr, 1963, Cape Dorset.
Fishing scene by Quvianatulik Parr, 1963, Cape Dorset. The book I had as a child is long gone but this is the kind of drawing that I remember.

Although I find this ongoing negation of what I have chosen as subject matter (just try getting a grant with a description of wanting to make art about Lake Superior Provincial Park) depressing it’s more like a ‘I know I’m going to die one day’ kind of depressing. Because when I get out and find what I want to paint I care less about the world I will ultimately need to navigate and count on for income and more on what is in front of me, beneath me and part of me. I generally live in the present and find that the administrative tasks that put food on my table a necessary evil and so I’m very happy when I am working.

Therefore I have no need to go on Facebook or Twitter and make statements like, “landscape painting is akin to medieval religious painting with the land as god and not unlike the pagan tradition” or “landscape art work has radicalized footprints which can be seen in Breughel for instance as a way of making the church look inferior/secondary to nature” or that “landscape artists put human influence having a central role in the natural world’s degradation/evolution like Turner’s later work” or that “Courbet showed a defiant sexuality through landscape” or that “resource based industry was widely documented through landscape painting” or that “a lot of landscape work influenced what we have now as the modern environmental movement” or….. as you can see I would spend all my time “defending” landscape work and I don’t do that.

My first experience with landscape art work was with Inuit drawing. My mother loved art work made by Inuit artists, volunteered for Inuit issues and longed to visit what is now Nunavut. These art works told a story of people completely immersed in their landscape, and the need to heed to it, to revere it and to ultimately see their dependence on it as deeply spiritual without the dualism (humans/nature) we seem to have and continue to have. I am forever grateful that I was given this opportunity to explore 2D work that was so rich in poetic and philosophical underpinnings while also being narratives – in many ways this is still what I try to do.

But I don’t draw people or animals and I never will.  I am the figure in my landscape paintings. Like landscape artists before me I just try to pull into my psyche who I am in the wilderness; I’m not an intruder, I’m not a tourist, I’m not in denial of shared histories, I hold the wild in me and I interpret this experience in art, nothing more.

Image from the Canadian Museum of History

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