This is an accompanying essay for an exhibition I curated in 2010, focused upon painting in Saskatchewan, which was then – and remains – a highly contested narrative. I was invited by then aka gallery director Tod Emel to select a number of artists to reflect a snapshot of what painting was, at that time, in the province. I share it here both as a #throwback, if you will, but also as an interesting curatorial project that was in my mind, when I was recently working on Welland: Times Present Times Past at AIH Studios in Welland. I hope to be sharing another past curatorial venture from paved arts in Saskatoon (Personal Geographies) in the near future, as well.
Region focuses on painters who make work in this place, about this place, with nods to history both popular and previously ignored. The three artists in Region speak to different aspects of painting in Saskatchewan, encompassing landscape, portraiture, and abstraction, refigured through a contemporary focus, with both reverence and a sense of irony and humour.
To even attempt to speak of painting in Saskatchewan in a homogeneous manner, to even attempt to pare that down to Saskatoon, in a further desire to make it all a comfortable peg to fit in the appropriate hole, is to deny the contested histories that are Saskatchewan. That is as artificial as the shape of the province. The recent spate of exhibitions – here or elsewhere – focused on Saskatchewan has shown, if only by the sheer number of artists included, that we are a diverse “landscape.” We are only flat and dull in the never-ending jokes, (“I watched my dog run away for days”) or in the karaoke versions of modernism that still linger, like an unpleasant odour, a prophylactic to creativity and truly contemporary art making; like a colonial yoke that ensures we are not our own artists.
In my approach to REGION, I often thought of different strains, or bloodlines, that have run – and continue to appear – in painting in this place. And to continue that analogy, the practices of the three artists in this show are vibrant and very much about this place, very much lively and contemporary – but also stand on the achievements of the past without being defined by them. REGION is also a vague term, as much about physical areas as it is about conceptual ones, and like all the best terms that we use often, has different, divergent and (thankfully) contradictory meanings.
“Region” equates to landscape for many Canadians, whether it is our grandmothers’ love of Group of Seven calendars, or Ross Kings’ excellent new work on placing that group, and Thom Thompson, within their larger global context. And on a more “regional” level, Saskatchewan embodies the Wacousta (1) syndrome in an idealized way, more so, I think, than any other province. And then you must consider that one of the aforementioned shows about Saskatchewan, Mind the Gap (Dunlop Art Gallery, 2009), is a joking play on the “gap” that is Saskatchewan, between the destinations of Winnipeg or Edmonton, like watching the MuchMusic Canada Concert Listings, and wondering why nothing every happens in that (supposedly) wasteland expanse of the Prairies.
But personal narratives are often the most telling, and much landscape painting is to internalize the external, to give a sense of order, or understanding, to the place we’re in: Saskatchewan is an imaginary place, as the stories you hear sometimes seem so incongruous that its hard to believe that yes, they all happened here. This personal narrative is not so obvious in the works of Ian Rawlinson, until you consider these are images of his immediate world, places he speaks of biking through, or living in, and that these are not imaginary landscapes, but images of his life and world. No pretension here, looking for validation elsewhere or else when. The (always evening, in the dark of the night) locales that Rawlinson sources for his dark, haunted paintings are literally his city, as Distant Message, or Pulse, are everyday, seemingly banal sites: the lack of human presence in these dense images means that we’re allowed to be alone in them, that the scene is just here for us, and only us.
I must also mention that Rawlinson’s landscapes, though they never are literally or overtly threatening, suggest that something “bad” or “dangerous” is about to happen, or has happened. As the sites are familiar to many viewers of this show who live in this city, we also understand that unoccupied spaces are informed by what we are told may have happened there, forming stories – true or false, as though there is a clean line in histories of place in our minds. Driver’s Seat, with its implication of moving forward, with its rich darkness, where you know there are still things to be seen, if not immediately visible, fills me with the most unease. Rich and dark and foreboding…..
Jennifer McRorie’s “landscapes of the body” are personal, echoed in how her paintings are all named for people, and thus aren’t so much anaesthetisized, cross sections of nameless flesh as they are personal narratives (literally) inscribed on the body.
McRorie’s words on her work offer insight : “The body as a mediated subject, impacted by experience and time, vulnerable to contingency and agency, both biologically pre-given and socially constructed; an entity whose subjectivity and borders are continually being negotiated. Seeing the skin as the most eloquent and obvious signifier for the body, I have been exploring the physical, philosophical, psychological and cultural aspects of the skin, through depicting the marking of the skin through scarring.”
These are images that have stories, or that invite the same, of how Cathy, or Chris, came to have these scars, these indexical signs of memory. The bumpy, rigid and visceral nature of the almost invasive portraits of Marie (whom I wish to meet now, as she merits twice the consideration, in Marie I or II,) and Zhong could almost be just “safe” and antiseptic if we didn’t know their names. This uncomfortable “naming” makes them persons, and makes them real, as you have to wonder about the how – and perhaps the why – of these scars, a variation on the idea of proof of existence by the marks left behind, a history incised on the body, open enough for our own experience to make the stories (like the injection of our personal experiences into Rawlinson’s empty landscapes, filled with our ideas – I find myself comparing my scars to these, wondering if we share a commonality). These are open-ended biographies.
Cheryl Buckmaster has also done a number of works that rework (or realize) larger tropes and myths. This is what you would expect of a series very sexily titled Electric Jesus. Its not uncommon in art to depict larger myths and ideas in contemporary style, from Jesus and the faithless apostles on a boat on a perfect Northern European lake landscape, or James Ensor’s horrific works as much about G-d (and his / her absence) as they are about the desolation and despair of Europe after the war to (supposedly) end all wars. Buckmaster’s use of the same model again and again makes him an archetype, and allows us to more so appreciate and read his surroundings and actions, implied and otherwise. Prairie Reign or Party Line have a sense of black humour, and definitely some caustic irreverence – something we could use more of, from painters, in this place. Buckmaster is creating a moment, as all good painters do, by synthesizing her reality with a larger one, “combining old and new imagery to symbolize and question a patriarchal archetype…..exploring modern male experience after the social changes in the last century….materialism, technology, sexuality, religion, emotion…identity…but I have only begun, and to allow for creative freedom [and I would inject, to allow for truth, as well], I need to stay vague…”
This is not portraiture, anymore than all of us, any artist, makes an image of our own world, and our place in it. Painting, at its best, is the creation of a moment, drawn from our surroundings.
REGION explores nuances that link the works of these three artists, and that sometimes bring out aspects of an individual’s work that might not be considered: and the work is installed in a manner that allows the viewer to stand in the middle of the space and be surrounded on all sides by it, to walk into the “U” shape of the overall gallery, and to stand within the works, and allow them to talk back and forth to each other, sometimes confirming, sometimes contradicting, but always in conversation.
 The Wacousta syndrome, named after John Wacousta, title character of the 1832 novel by John Richardson, is an early analysis of how we are formed – or deformed – by landscape: he has described the Praire’s flatness as a noose around us, implacable and eternal, contrasted to our brevity and irrelevance. Margaret Atwood touches on some of these notions in Survival. I like to reference Wacousta, as Saskatchewan’s artificial shape speaks of an impossible and misguided attempt to subdue an unruly Nature.