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Entries in painting (46)

Wednesday
Dec232009

James Trevelyan

James Trevelyan. Frozen Lake, 1986. 27 x 20", mixed media on paperThis drawing came up for auction recently.  There are four large Calgary art auctions a year, each with about 600 lots, maybe 400 of which are paintings of the mountains in landscape format, blue skies, sharp shadows on the peaks, snow at the top, usually a river in the foreground.  The views are often recognisable from the road or from hikes radiating out from the old CPR towns - Banff, Lake Louise, Field, Craigellachie, Glacier, Golden and date from the days when artists came from England or Ontario and Québec via the CPR to Banff to paint.  It established a way of looking at the mountains: from a safe distance, from a valley, in the summer.

Today these same towns are ski centres, contemporary art has long turned away from landscape painting, and although there are some brilliant abstract painters of landscapes across the prairies, few look at the mountains and it is rare indeed to find much work painted from the depths of winter.  The obvious reason is that it is bloody cold in the winter. 

Perhaps a less obvious reason is our fear of winter.  The winter on the prairies and in the mountains is not the cozy Group of Seven kind of winter where snow lies like puffy duvets on everything and shadows are a lovely violet or a deep azure.  This is black and white winter, hard and mean. The frozen lake in James Trevelyan's drawing is scoured clean by a high mountain wind, its ice like basalt.  And yet there is a lovely intimacy in this piece, an ambiguity of surface and light that one never finds in work painted on bright sunny days. 

Like lots of Canadians, lots of Canadian artists go to Mexico for the winter.  I'd take this view of a sere, cold, empty, beautiful winter over the florid landscapes of the south any day.  Visually, I get this climate. 

 

Thursday
Dec102009

camouflage

Eric Ravilious. Spitfires on a Camouflaged Runway, 1942. watercolour on paper 45 x 62 cm. Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon

Ravilious, above, shows a camouflaged air field, with an added stream, road and shading to indicate topographic variation: complex patterns for a complex landscape.  If the RCAF training field in Vulcan had been under threat from the Luftwaffe it would have been painted to look like a wheatfield with rectangular plowing lines. 

Aisling O'Carroll wrote about military camouflage in On Site 22: WAR.  In her section on deception she outlines the array of dummy trucks, tanks and airstrips elaborately laid out to divert attention from real trucks, tanks and airstrips all cunningly camouflaged with paint, netting and big boxes.  She tracked down some great pictures from the National Photographic Archives at Kew – one showing a tank lurking under a very crude truck form as part of the grand counter-installations for el Alamein.  The scale of the deception is staggering: an entire army was recreated in a part of the desert far away from the real army. 

Camouflage does not seem to be as much about veracity as pattern recognition.  The scale worked at is the texture of the landscape with objects, including shadows.  It is an activity at once huge and intimate.

Friday
Dec042009

C R W Nevinson: the scale of the road

CRW Nevinson. The Road from Arras to Bapaume, 1917. c. Imperial War Museum

This road, from Arras in the Pas-de-Calais to Bapaume, is very like the section roads that grid off the prairies.  Landscape painters in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan tend to paint from the road, looking into the section, rather than at the roads themselves.  When roads do appear, they are tangential, inadvertant, rather than the rigid registration of the land that they are. 

The Nevinson painting is both from the road and of the road.  By the third year of the Great War, fought to end all wars, tangents, the picturesque, beauty as the subject of art and landscape as something life-sustaining were gone.  Land had become, as in this painting, mechanical and antagonistic.  Thus does war poison perception.  The road, like the war, seems endless.

Thursday
Dec032009

Eric Ravilious: the scale of the land

Eric Ravilious. Chalk Downs, 1940. watercolour. 23 x 14 in. (56 x 47 cm)Eric Ravilious was a British war artist who died in 1944 when the RAF reconnaissance plane he was on disappeared off Iceland.  He did a number of things before the war: murals, woodcuts, graphic design, drawing and painting in the pale, flat sketchy way that a number of artists who had studied at the Slade used in the 1930s and 40s.  Supreme draughtsmanship, coupled in Ravilious's case with a deep love of the Sussex landscape which was at the time under threat from development, informs the painting above. 

It is small, and the brushmarks are those of a watercolour brush, used quite dry, and in places stippled.  It was a way of working that was fast and portable.  For Ravilious, nature is not wilderness, it is the impacted landscape of earth worked for millennia under many belief systems for agricultural use.  The fence line is important: it delineates territory, the road cuts the growing surface of the land the same way as the huge chalk hill carvings such as the Westbury horse, or the Cerne Abbas giant.

The chalk drawings are neolithic, perhaps druidic.  They are made by removing the thin layer of turf to reveal the limestone below.  They will disappear if not kept clear, which they have been for 3000 years.  It is this immense continuity that Ravilious sees in his landscapes, combined with the modernity of the age in which he lived.  A steam train chugs across the plain beneath the Westbury horse.

The Imperial War Museum held a centenary Ravilious (1903-1944) exhibition in 2004.  A most beautiful book was published to accompany it: Imperial War Museum. Eric Ravilious. Imagined Realities. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003.  Their website gives an overview.

Eric Ravilious. The Westbury Horse, 1939. © Estate of Eric Ravilious 2004

Wednesday
Dec022009

Barbara Ballachey: the scale of the hand

Barbara Ballachey. An Ordinary Hill #1, 1980. 48 x 64 in. (121.9 x 162.6 cm)

This was a painting I could not afford to buy at a recent auction.  It is a particularly bright view of the foothills landscape south of Calgary – gaily coloured, exuberant brush strokes – just a beautiful painting.  In the online catalogue it looked like one thing, in reality it is very large: it is 5' wide.  On line I had understood each mark at the scale of the hand, at most from the elbow to the hand.  In reality the marks have been made with the whole arm, from the shoulder, and likely with the whole upper body moving with each stroke. 

A luddite-ish friend who has recently discovered the wealth of architectural images on the web wondered why he needed to travel all over the world now photographing buildings; he might as well stay home on his computer.  For the economically-challenged, the web is as close as many of us are ever likely to get to serious architecture.  The unfortunate thing, and this is the same with any form of reproduction, is that one has no idea what size anything is.  Still, all these years after Benjamin, we believe that to see a photograph or a reproduction is to 'know' the piece.

There is something introspective about buildings, landscapes, paintings that allows us to examine the materiality, the marks made in construction too small to register on a photograph but which are so telling.  If anything the reproduction does not allow us to consider the longue durée to which architecture, land and art are the witnesses. 

Friday
Nov202009

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu, “Excerpt (Riot),” 2003, ink and acrylic on canvas, 32 x 54”.

Last night on art:21 there was a segment on Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian painter in New York, who was working on a 10' x 85' long painting too large for any space in New York and so destined for Berlin.  She has a team of assistants who prepare her canvases which were shown as roughly 10' x 10'.  Projections of cities, taken often from GoogleEarth are traced in pencil on the canvas surface, so the photograph becomes a screen of lines, then another image is projected and another series of lines is added. Mehretu directs what aspect of each projection she wants and eventually starts to work into this graph of registrations of a city over time. 

It reminded me much of how architectural drawings used to be made, before CAD, with a team working on a set with layer after layer of information drawn onto the sheet, some pieces erased to make room for others, sometimes simultaneous information held by the same pencil line -- a dense haze of lines and tones by the end.  When I started drafting sometimes it was to update drawings on linen, and it was usual to work on both sides of the sheet. 

Anyway Mehretu starts to work into the basic information traced and drafted onto the acrylic surface of the canvas with ink and paint, sandpaper and hand, adding marks that connect the layers.  In Zaha Hadid's early drawings she did the same kind of isolation of certain planes, pulled out of conventional three-dimensional mapping, stretched to show urban spatiality rather than urban materiality. 

Mehretu's work is very much about mark-making, from the ruled lines, to floating colour patches over the lines, to expressive, agitated hand work like handwriting over it all.  She said at the end of the segment that it was all about making a painting.  The painting is the end point; the painting is not a vehicle for some other kind of message about urban, seething life – it is made by the response to that life.


The best site showing lots of work is at White Cube.


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