Reluctance Part I

by cjdown

The Life We Used to Love, oil and wax on canvas, 48 x 48″, 2007

Over the past few months I have been trying to resolve some questions about a turn in my practice. This turn revolves around two points which have become more or less impossible for me to ignore: 1) that I have become a landscape painter 2) that realism has been an increasingly important part of the dialogue in my work. Each of these points presents itself in the face of deep reluctance on my part to acknowledge either one.

These are fairly banal realizations in themselves, but what I find interesting is that the work has taken this direction, if not exactly against my will, then without my conscious intention. It seems to be the result of trying to set aside certain assumptions about what “advanced” painting looks like, that, in turn, is a result of a need to distance myself from the look of the “contemporary”.

I am reluctant to self-identify as a landscape painter for a number of reasons. First, there is a sense that this genre has been emptied by amateurs and Sunday painters, by endless calendar reproductions of Monet’s Waterlilies and Haystacks, by Thomas Kinkade and his simpering cynicism; in short that it has become the domain of sentimental hackery (not that I think Monet is a hack, simply that the omnipresence of calendar reproductions has led to a misappropriation of his work).

Second, I am very conscious of the legacy of landscape painting as a trope of Canadian Identity as well as the underlying colonial project that it has become associated with.  At one point, this attachment to Canadian-ness seemed quaint to me, but with the actual landscape in such jeopardy from our endless greed for natural resources, Canadian identification with wilderness and the “North” seems hypocritical and vaguely sinister. So for me, making pictures of landscapes that inevitably become positioned in relation to this legacy is highly problematic and fraught with anxiety.

The Pit (Chevy Mudbog), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 60″, 2006

The landscape has entered my work surreptitiously, through the use of photo sources. It has shifted slowly from background to foreground, inexorably occupying more and more space both conceptually and pictorially. This shift is correlated with moving from an urban centre in southwestern Ontario to a small town in rural New Brunswick. It is difficult for me to express exactly what this change of setting has meant to my thinking and my practice, except that the landscape has seemed much more tangible, vital, and pressing once I was removed from an urban environment.

On the sea floor, low tide, Long Island, Five Islands, Nova Scotia, 2009

This has little to do with the physical beauty of the landscape, although it is beautiful. Instead, I think it has to do with the sense that I am somehow more definitely placed, that I live in a somehow more direct relationship with everything around me. I have no doubt that this experience is completely possible in different contexts, and I make no claim for “getting back to nature”. However, it is hard to deny that the experience of standing on the ocean floor near the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, when the tide on the Bay of Fundy is out, produces a palpable feeling both of one’s cosmic insignificance and of one’s utter rootedness in the physical world.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

Although I am a reluctant landscape painter, I have to accept that the conditions of my everyday life are what form the ground of my practice. As an implacable manifestation of material reality, the landscape provides a check on my big ideas. As a source of visual profusion and experiential data, the generosity of the natural world is unmatched. The process of finding adequate analogues for these conditions is a different, and perhaps more tangled proposition.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

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