Friday, December 27, 2019

Craft in America: Quilts on PBS

Ken Burns, familiar to so many for his documentary films on American life, is a collector and aficionado of quilts. He appears in this film to share his enthusiasm for the medium, airing tonight on PBS.

For more information, go to the website:

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Holiday Greetings

this year's Christmas postcard

This has been an especially busy month for me. I've been preoccupied with helping a senior family member move into a new home. Perhaps in another month or so I will be back on track.

Meanwhile, here is an example of the several dozen cloth postcards I have made, all slightly different. Scraps of brightly printed fabric were fused onto muslin, then backed with batting, more muslin, and stitched. Finally, they were faced with heavy paper, and secured with stitching all around the outer edge.

What I love about these fabric postcards, and I've been making them for more than ten years now, is that they go through the mail without an envelope, just a stamp. I'm sure they bring a smile along the route, and I know they are valued in their new homes.

I have also matted and framed a dozen of these "patchwork hearts" for sale at the local gallery.

May your holidays too be filled with all the warmth of the season. And thank you for your interest and support throughout the year.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"Art and Rivalry", by Carol Bishop-Gwyn

This newly-published book, "Art and Rivalry", is subtitled "The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt". These names will be familiar to many Canadians, as both are iconic Canadian artists.

Mary Pratt (1935-2018) and Christopher Pratt (b. 1935) married young, in 1957, having met in art school. Together they raised four children. This book examines the challenges typically faced by women of the era, who were expected to put aside their professional ambitions so as to better support their husband's career and manage the household. Mary continued to make art even while her children were young, and in later years her career can be seen as eclipsing that of her husband.

Night on the Veranda, Christopher Pratt
silkscreen, 1986

Christmas Eve at 12 o'clock, Christopher Pratt
silkscreen, 1995
Both are important figures in the Atlantic Canada art world, producing prolifically as well as serving on many committees and councils.  Mary held a seat on the Canada Council for six years, and served as a regent for Mount Alison University for eight. She played an important role in the establishment of The Rooms, Newfoundland's premiere art gallery. Christopher accepted the role of curator of the then newly-opened Memorial University Art Gallery, and sat on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts from 1975-1981. For a time, he also taught at Memorial University.

Asarco Abstract #1, Christopher Pratt
oil on board, 2019

Bishop-Gwyn's unauthorized biography is thoroughly researched and rich with detail. Much of her book deals with the complications of married life. Christopher, for example, entered into an affair with one of his young models. When he gave Mary some of his discarded slides featuring the model, she used them to inspire her own portraits of the young woman. The general opinion was that Mary's paintings of the young woman were superior, more full of life and emotion than Chrisopher's studies of the same subject. In many respects the two artists were rivals as well as intimate partners.

Eggs in Egg Crate, Mary Pratt
oil, 1973

Some critics of Mary Pratt's work have found her subject matter mundane and commonplace. Others revel in her celebration of the everyday. Often her subjects suggest "containment", and it is interesting to survey her many paintings with this theme in mind.

Jelly Shelf, Mary Pratt
oil, 1999

Cold Dream, Mary Pratt
oil, 1983
As a young man, Pratt worked summers as a surveyor, and this no doubt contributed to his artistic vision. He favours a flat, full-frontal approach, like that of filmmaker Wes Anderson. Critics of Christopher Pratt's work regret that he so often directed his energies to the medium of silkscreen instead of his oil painting, but it could be that the affordability of his limited edition prints helped to popularize his paintings and raise their value. He continues to sell his prints and paintings through the Mira Godard Gallery.

Carol Bishop-Gwyn has written a fascinating book from a feminist perspective, documenting the personal and professional lives of two important Canadian artists.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Tribute to Leonard Cohen: opening

Last week was the vernissage of my most recent show, a collaborative celebration of the life, music and poetry of Leonard Cohen. Most of the twelve participating artists were there, and the many visitors took advantage of this opportunity to talk to the artists about their work.

Portrait of Cohen, Eric Mannella

Visitors are greeted by this haunting portrait of Cohen. In the words of the artist,
"This painting explores the idea of light revealing form, using a baroque model of lighting where the light source is a single beam. Emphasis is placed on a veristic likeness of the poet while conveying an introspective portrait of a deep thinker."

When Paper Becomes Poetry, Joanne Keilo

At the entrance to the show, these three large works by Joanne Keilo make a strong impression on the viewer. Made of dried paper pulp, they reference script with their calligraphic shapes. The choice to forego glass in the mounting left the works vulnerable and fragile, in keeping with Cohen's aesthetic of celebrating human imperfection and frailty. Keilo wrote:
"Cohen laments. Rather than bypass the glory and the pain, he permits himself to sink into it. He emerges through his poetry, through his songs, through his prose. In 'Beautiful Losers' Cohen writes 'How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?'
"In my series 'When Paper Becomes Poetry' I beat the fibres for over eight hours in a Hollander beater. The overbeaten pulp is then placed in a squeeze bottle. Songs sung to me as an infant and as a child are formed from the pulp in the bottle and are written and re-written in spiral form. The lullabies and songs are finally transformed by the drying process when the pulp ultimately shrinks and undulates as it wishes, much like memories. This series confronts and transforms the subtle body of the baby's experience from paper into a kind of visual poetry." 

Also by Joanne Keilo were these five works
from her Close to the Bone series,
comprised of large "leaf skeletons" incorporated
into paper pulp. Detail shown below.

Imperfect Vessel, Mona Turner
36 x 24

Writes Mona Turner, about her painting, above,
"Cohen's words, 'There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in' remind me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, repairing cracks in pottery with gold. This art form celebrates a beauty that is imperfect, and impermanent. The crack, the imperfection, becomes the source of new ideas, of growth and change."

Diaspora, Heather Dubreuil
acrylic collage and paint, 20 x 20

My contribution to the original Leonard Cohen exhibition at the Rigaud Library is shown above. The theme of this first exhibition was the fragment of Cohen's lyric, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Diaspora relates Cohen's words to the issue of mass migration and the global crises of refugees.

From the series First, we take Manhattan, Heather Dubreuil

For this current show, I contributed six "radical collages" from my recent series, originally titled City in Ruins. These dystopian cityscapes were made on 10 x 10 wood panels with layer upon layer of collage and paint, each layer altered by sanding to "deconstruct" the image.

I have tried in my way to be free, Heather Dubreuil
hand-dyed linen, cording and stitch, 24 x 24

This final photo, above, shows another of my contributions to the exhibition. It was meant to represent the tension between our needs for autonomy and for belonging. Its title is borrowed from the lyrics of Cohen's song Like a Bird on the Wire.

On a recent weekday visit to the show, I was delighted to see a class of schoolchildren, seated at tables in the gallery, engaged in their own visual interpretations of Cohen's words. The show Inspiré par Leonard Cohen at the Musée régional de Vaudreuil-Soulanges will continue until January 22, 2020. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Art auction at Heffel

Two auctions are scheduled later this month at the Toronto branch of Heffel, the fine art auction house: one of post-war and contemporary art and another of Canadian, impressionist and modern art.

The works that will be up for bidding have been previewed in Calgary, Vancouver, and Montreal, and I was lucky enough to spend some time at the Montreal preview this weekend. (The preview continues today, 11 am - 6 pm.)

The Heffel building, located on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal's Golden Square Mile, has some beautiful features, including an impressive hand-carved interior staircase, ornate ceiling mouldings, and stained glass windows.

The star attraction of the event is Femme au Chapeau, by Pablo Picasso. It is expected to sell for $8 - $10 million Canadian. Its subject is Dora Maar, and it is said that her portrayal here embodies the conflict and angst of the artist while living in Paris during the German occupation.

Femme au Chapeau, Pablo Picasso, 1941
oil on canvas, 24 x 14 7/8 in

Four works by the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle will be offered for sale at the auction. The most impressive of these, shown below, is expected to sell for about $1 million Canadian.

Untitled, Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1955
oil on canvas, 24 3/4 x 80 3/4"

Heffel has provided much background information about the various works on its website, as well as in several small printed catalogs. The website offers visitors the chance to zoom in on the details of each painting. Here is a description of Riopelle's technique, as described by a contemporary:
"I will never forget this scene. First, he did not paint with a brush but rather with what looked like a putty knife. Second, judging by the hundreds of empty tubes that lay at his feet, he was using a phenomenal quantity of paint. He did not unscrew his tubes. He decapitated them in one move with his knife without ever using the cap. Red, blue, or green: the colours appeared suddenly at the tip of his fingers. Because that is how he was doing it: he held all the tubes (say three or four or as many as his hand could hold) in his fist and then either poured them directly on the canvas or managed to have one colour mixing with the next by pressing the tubes in a certain way." 

Karlukwees, BC, Walter Joseph Phillips, 1929
woodcut on paper, 10 1/2 x 12 1/2"

Other Canadian artists to be featured in the sale include Emily Carr,  A.J. Casson, Alexander Colville, Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, William Kurelek, Jean-Paul Lemieux, Arthur Lismer, David Milne, James Wilson Morrice, Robert Wakeham Pilot and Christopher Pratt.

La Seigneurie / Le manoir, Jean Paul Lemieux, 1973
oil on canvas, 16 3/4 x 26 3/4"

The preview is a rare opportunity to see so much high-quality work mounted in just a few small rooms. I look forward to reading a report on the auction, taking place November 20, 2019. The event will also be live-streamed.

Several more days of preview are scheduled at the Design Exchange, 234 Bay Street, Toronto, November 15 - 20. For details, go to the auction website.

Morning on the Inlet, A.J. Casson, 1959
oil on board, 24 x 45"

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Jean-Paul Riopelle Foundation Launches in Montreal

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the birth of Quebec painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, a foundation to promote his work has been launched in Montreal.

Riopelle's mid-century paintings are among my favourites of the era. There are some excellent examples of his work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Musée Nationale des Beaux-Arts du Québec and Canada's National Gallery. He is also represented at the Tate in London, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The Foundation proposes to give his work more exposure, especially in the United States, where he is almost unknown. They also hope to create a physical and virtual space that will encourage communication and exchanges between museums, institutions, and collectors, making his work better known.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, Perspectives, 1956
806 x 1000 mm

One of the aspects of the above painting that I particularly like is that it is visually organized into large masses, interacting with each other. Each of the masses is in turn made of small elements, almost like a mosaic or patchwork. I find I am drawn to this kind of composition, so typical of Riopelle's paintings from this era.

You can read more about the initiative to promote Riopelle and his work here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Hommage à Leonard

Delighted to be part of this group show at the Musée régional de Vaudreuil-Soulanges. 

The twelve artists have come together to celebrate the life, poetry and music of Leonard Cohen, and will engage you with their works in painting, collage, sculpture and textile.

Please join us at the official opening on Sunday, November 10, from 2 - 4 p.m., 431 avenue St-Charles, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Québec.

The show ends on January 22, 2020.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Lorraine Pritchard @ Galérie Beaux-Arts des Amériques

I have followed the career of artist Lorraine Pritchard with interest for several years now. She is represented by the Galérie Beaux-Arts des Amériques in Montreal, and is currently the subject of a solo show at their St.-Laurent Street venue.

Like Agnes Martin, Pritchard was raised on the Canadian Prairies. The two artists share an affinity for the vast landscape of crop lines and fence lines, reaching uninterrupted to the horizon under an enormous sky. This vision is evident in Pritchard's recent series of tall rectangles on washi paper, featuring fine, pencilled parallel lines running edge-to-edge, closely spaced, creating bands of colour.

What Lies Between, 2019
95 drawings, ink and coloured pencil on washi,
each 21.75" x 6.75"

The visitor to the show is greeted by a wall with 95 such banners, mounted in grid format. During the vernissage, when the space was crowded with well-wishers, the banners trembled with the changing air currents.

Above is a variation on the use of parallel lines drawn on washi paper, with the paper folded to cast shadows and create a multiplicity of shapes.

Other series by Pritchard could be described as calligraphic.

Clearly the artist brings great focus and discipline to these drawings. And yet other series are more about the large gesture and these are, perhaps, my favourites.

I enjoy the variety I see in these compositions: opacity and transparency, over and under, subtle transitions and bold contrast.

Often they include a drawn line that acts as a counterpoint to the great swaths of transparent colour.

More images from the current exhibition are available on the gallery's website.

The show continues until November 16, 2019.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

"How Do We Look", by Mary Beard

Published in 2018, this book is barely 200 pages long, but it turns the conventions of art history on its head.

Rather than a parade of (mostly male) artists ("one damn genius after another" is the author's phrase), Mary Beard focuses on the "social history" of art. How did the art function in its society? What purpose did it serve? What does it tell us about its time, and how much does it continue to shape our perceptions today? She shifts the focus from the "maker" of the art to the "audience" of the art.

The author readily admits how much she was influenced by Kenneth Clark and his BBC series "Civilization" (1969), but she broadens the conversation by drawing on references from outside the Western canon, including examples from South America, Asia and the Islamic world. She also turns our gaze to include women artists and artisans, and to explore how art reflects (and fails to reflect) the role of women in the world.

Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature. She is the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Despite all these impressive titles and her obvious erudition, Beard writes in a most accessible style.

If you're interested in the more modern and inclusive take on art history, this would be a good book to begin with.

And here's an interesting footnote: Mary Beard was a co-presenter for the 2018 BBC update of the Kenneth Clark series, newly titled "Civilizations". But when the series was edited for American PBS, much of her footage was removed. Beard claimed that her appearance as an older woman was unwelcome, and that the series was modified to become more "anodyne". She urges anyone interested to watch the BBC version of "Civilizations".

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Jean McEwen @ the MMFA

Marking the twentieth anniversary of his death, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has staged a show of the work of Montreal painter Jean McEwen. Untamed Colour: Celebrating the Art of Jean McEwen continues until February 2, 2020.

His paintings are large, and their textural qualities make a strong impact on the viewer. McEwen was known to apply the paint to canvas with his hands.

Of the works on display, one of my favourites is this one:

The Madness Driving Love No 3, 1966

The central area in red is flat and opaque, contrasting with the two outer rectangles of mottled violet. A thin, hard-edged gold line outlines each of the three main shapes.

Making a strong impression as the viewer enters the exhibition's large room is:

Long Plumb Line No. 2, 1961

This richly-textured work in oil, evoking a patina of age, was shown in McEwen's first solo show in New York, in 1963. That same year it was also included, with eight of his other works, in Canada's entry to the 7th Sāo Paulo Biennial.

Similarly stunning is:

Loophole Crossing Blue, 1961

Others of McEwen's paintings have a quieter palette.

Temple of Joy, 1977.

Jean McEwen was self-taught. Early in his career he came to know Paul-Émile Borduas, and then Jean-Paul Riopelle. Later, he became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and a lecturer at the Université of Québec and at Concordia University.

A description posted at the exhibit reads:
"By displaying works that span McEwen's near-fifty-year-long career, this exhibition underlines the understated monumentality, continuity and haunting beauty of his practice. The artist often used his hands to apply paint directly on the canvas, yet his paintings nonetheless eschew the drama of gesture, exploiting instead the intensity and expressiveness of colour. Their numerous successive layers of paint simultaneously suggest a rugged and polished surface while retaining a geometric structure and potent symbolic form that elude specific interpretation."

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The New York State Capitol Building

Returning home from a driving holiday in New England, we spent some time in Albany, New York.

Albany is a curious city. As the state capitol of New York, much public money has been spent on its government buildings. The city is almost entirely low-rise, with the exception of some modern governmental skyscrapers, which are poorly-integrated into the landscape of the city centre. They are connected by a cavernous underground plaza, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, lacking in amenities or storefronts. The whole complex was built between 1965 and 1976, at an estimated cost of $2 billion.

view of Albany's historic capitol building,
surrounded by modernist government buildings

Here is what architecture critic Martin Filler wrote about the complex, in The Making of Empire State Plaza:
"There is no relationship at all between buildings and site, neither at grade nor atop the podium, since all vestiges of the existing site have been so totally obliterated. Thus, as one stands on the Plaza itself, there is an eerie feeling of detachment. The Mall buildings loom menacingly, like aliens from another galaxy set down on this marble landing strip."
The neighbourhood around the plaza is run-down, and includes a number of condemned buildings. Our innkeeper explained that the people who work for the state are well-paid, and want to live in the suburbs. What she didn't explain was that the centre of the city had been hollowed out by the evictions necessary to accommodate a modernist dream. I found out more about this history by reading the Wikipedia entry here.

Apparently there is a large collection of mid-century art in the complex. I saw only a few examples, and assume that one must enter the various skyscrapers to see the almost 100 sculptures and paintings.

Our hostess recommended a tour of the historic state capitol building. Here are some of the photos I took on the very informative tour.

This image of a hallway underlines the impressive nature
of the state capitol building, built 1867-1899.
The mosaic floor was laid piece-by-piece, by hand.

Examples of fine craftsmanship abound.
Much of the woodcarving was done on site, and the artisans
were mostly immigrants from Scotland.

Many of the materials were also imported, like this panelling of Italian marble.

The state senators meet here, and the galleries are open to the public.
Our guide pointed out some unfinished details in the building, which
was plagued with cost over-runs. The building was declared "finished" in 1899,
at a cost of $25 million, worth almost $800 million today.
It was the most expensive government building of its time.

Originally, the building was to be capped with a dome,
but the idea was scrapped due to structural concerns.

Three successive teams of architects were hired, as costs escalated.
Each team worked in a different architectural style.
Thomas Fuller was the original architect, beginning in 1867
with a Classical/Romanesque style.
He also designed the parliament buildings in Ottawa.
The next two floors were done in a Renaissance Classical style,
and the final work was considered to be Victorian-modified Romanesque.

A second assembly room. The light fixture, seen in part
on the right, weighs twelve tons.

The stonecarving was all done in place.
The capitals of the columns include faces of historic figures,
as well as those of some of the craftsmen.

A tour of the capitol building is offered four times daily, and I would recommend it. Albany also has two worthwhile museums within walking distance, the Albany Institute of History and Art and the New York State Museum.