Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 3, 2009

Art in its Proper Place

It may be a cliché, but you don’t have to go far from home to experience the world.

Mythology and art

In a paper published on the Internet, Eric Rosenbloom discusses mythology as an expression of the complex and problematic relationship of humanity to nature – a dynamic he hypothesizes as creating anxiety and guilt as we struggle with our ambivalent feelings toward nature. He also suggests that the conflict between humans and nature is exacerbated by ongoing scientific discoveries that continue to confound the “human ego” by confirming our identity with nature. He suggests one principal way of resolving this conflict: “Art alone, at its best, speaks honestly to the human soul. Art alone takes us out of ourselves and then, unlike science or commerce or religion or politics returns us to ourselves. Through art, we move beyond mythology, to accept ourselves and the world, and live.”

Landscape and culture

A 1999 report titled A Sense of Place – A Sense of Being from the Canadian federal government’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, suggests that our sense of place is “central to an understanding and experience of culture” and that “We derive a sense of place from the landscape, the buildings, and the artifacts that surround us.” The report emphasizes that in order to understand who we are, we first have to understand and appreciate where we are. Although the report was focussing on our cultural heritage, it seems to me that our sense of place and our sense of being are also to be found in a far greater context, our natural heritage.

These thoughts became especially meaningful to me after a recent visit to see Nature Resplendent, a startling retrospective exhibit of the watercolours of Pat Clemes at the Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery of Markham, Ontario.

The visit was also the occasion for some personal consciousness-raising on my part about the important role of art galleries in local communities across Canada as a critical network for supporting and validating Canadian artists. The Varley Art Gallery which is in many respects the home base – with a community as well as national mandate – of one of Canada’s most gifted artists, is a prime example of this social dynamic.

Until I saw Clemes’s work, I had always considered watercolour a medium that expresses the artist’s vision in a quiet, subtle way. It always seemed to me that this was in fact the nature of the medium: delicate, fluid colours carefully applied with light brush strokes on equally delicate white paper; the effect, a quiet appeal to the senses, a tenuous, discreet impression of what the artist sees. After my encounter with Clemes’s work, however, my naive and rather patronizing perception of this art form has been reformatted, if not reproved.

The main gallery in which Clemes’s paintings are hung, is large, airy, and spacious suggesting – appropriately – a kind of comforting town hall space where people can move about chatting quietly and freely, observing – in short, feeling quite at home. The lustrous blond hardwood floor with its unique recessed baseboards supports the room by reflecting light upward and as a result does not fix the gallery space implacably at ground level. Visually, the floor space liberates the turquoise walls that rise toward a high, gently-curving, cathedral-like white ceiling which in turn amplifies the openness of the room. Architecturally, the room has a neutral, non-rigid Scandinavian look and feel to it. It is a space in which there are no harsh angles; the room constantly takes your eye upwards. This is a suitably benevolent ambiance for the kinetic art of Pat Clemes. It is a room in which things are allowed to happen.

Standing in the middle of the room I am aware of waves of colour emanating from the walls. The large evenly-spaced watercolours, many of which average 55 by 75 centimetres, create a continuum of the most vibrant colours I have ever seen in this medium. Their intensity is such that I am drawn to them collectively; no individual painting captures my sole attention. My usual strategy of devising a plan of action – a way of working the room in an art gallery – is thwarted. The pervasive sweep of colour defeats any systematic approach to the exhibit; attempting to impose my order on this exhibit will obviously be ineffectual. As a result, I don’t quite know where to begin, or how. So I go with the flow and allow my senses to make directional choices for me, which I suspect is the most effective way to interact with Clemes’s art.

I am facing the north wall on which several large paintings of flowers are hung. The flowers are amplified as if viewed through a close-up portrait lens; their colours, shapes, and fine details rendered boldly and provocatively. As I approach them, the luxurious blooms fill my field of vision: gloxinia, red and crimson hibiscus, azaleas, and a riot of pansies. Their vibrancy is both attractive and astonishing; there is movement within the paintings, and I sense a kind of struggle. Clemes gives her images the added dimension of animation. It is as if the florals are saying, “We are cultivated but not domesticated, not tamed!” Their beauty is vigorous and assertive. The paintings have a depth of field and an elaborate composition that makes them multi-dimensional. They also have a strong tactile sense that makes me feel as if I am part of a moment in time during which Clemes distilled the essence of the flowers. It is as if I am among them, in the same mode and mood as the artist; the inherent movement of these paintings suggests a transitory and capricious lifespan. Talking about these particular paintings, Clemes has said, “The mood of the day for me always seems to affect the character of the plant and the way I paint it.” Is this art imitating nature or is it the other way around?

Clemes uses colour unabashedly. The generous array of warm and cool colours – red, blue, purple, salmon, magenta, green – is formidable and very sensual, and the dexterity with which she paints detail in the petals, leaves, and stems also reveals their delicacy and ephemeral nature. There is a wild beauty to these paintings, and a strength of character .

Although I feel immersed in the florals, I am also becoming drawn to the paintings to my left, seascapes and maritime scenes. Moving toward them, is like going from the specific to the general, from the closely regarded detail to the complete picture, and yet the same intensity and the same vigorous spirit is in both the close-ups of flowers and panoramic maritime scenes. In Fishing Boats Near Lunenburg, for example, the colours and brush strokes communicate a similar agitation of natural elements; you can feel the energy, and the engagement of the water and the wind. Although some might consider these paintings to be nature unadorned, it’s obvious that Clemes sees all of nature in that way. Human activity is present in her work but secondary or only suggested. It is the unregulated, spontaneous aspects of nature that her paintings express. Nothing is contrived, planned, or dictated. It is clear that she paints on site, in medias res.

Nature and spontaneity

Commenting on her own artistic process, she is quoted as saying, “For me, a work ‘cooked up’ later, [loses] the initial impulse and the subtle nuances; the character of the moment [is] lost.” And I understand the immediacy of mood and the spontaneity of feeling that her glowering skies and unsettled waters communicate. I am still astounded that this can be achieved in a medium such as watercolour and yet it does seem to be a one-chance medium. You have it, feel it, express it – or you don’t.

Moving now from ocean scenes to mountains, I see the perspective and context increasing in size and scope. Imposing views of mountains in Banff, the Rockies, and the Purcells emphasize the massive and the monumental in nature. Here Clemes imbues her paintings with the immensity of time and space. I am reminded of how our physical geography affects our psyche, short-term as well as long-term. I understand a little bit better now the Canadian “sense of place.” Watching the forces of nature played out in these paintings I feel somewhat diminished, as if I have been projected into the scene – and that, I think, is the point. But at the same time, the connection between these weighty mountains and the delicacy of cultivated garden flowers is clear, and this somehow is reassuring. Clemes seems to suggest that being part of it does not mean renouncing one’s self; the passion she depicts is in nature as well as in the human psyche. As a gallery note attests, she is accentuating “the variable substance of nature and being alive … [the] passion and involvement of the experience and of the moment.”

Rhythm and intensity

These words confirm that viewing the paintings of Pat Clemes is an intense experience especially as the distance between viewer and art – between viewer and nature – is sharply reduced. The heightened sense of awareness that this exhibit produces is also due to the rhythms of nature that Clemes replicates in her work. The drama and fervor of some her stormier pieces are followed at one point in the exhibit by more tranquil rural scenes, especially in the heartland of Ontario cottage country. In them time seems held in check just a bit, a moment’s grace for reflection on the part of the viewer; nature is being kind. In these calm landscapes she is especially adept at capturing reflections on lakes, emphasizing the duality of observing the natural world; to fully appreciate the often terrible beauty of nature one must become part of it and then withdraw a little in order to process the experience. And these quieter scenes are like the calm between two storms: the frenetic activity of the floral symphonies she paints and the deep resonance of her maritime and mountain scenes.

In her European landscapes in the south of France, Clemes again communicates a distinct sense of place however she seems more distant in them, or perhaps engaged in a different way. Being familiar with the area, I can certainly attest to the paintings’ visual precision and to the way she evokes the provençal landscape through the viewer’s senses. There is in them, however, a separateness that I don’t feel in the Canadian paintings; they seem, quite understandably I suppose, a little less de chez nous.

Art and integration

Clemes’s art both disconnects and connects. Her paintings require that you leave part of yourself behind when you engage with her in her art. However, when you leave the gallery you come away with a greater understanding of nature as a primal force in itself, as well as an essential ingredient of the human mind.

Given the urbanized environments in which most North Americans especially live, it is not difficult to understand the potential for alienation from nature. And if that alienation from nature mirrors or indeed leads to social alienation, the importance of art and nature as forms of mediation and mentorship becomes increasingly important. To artists, mentorship is nothing new; it is in fact a prime mode of learning. To be nurtured and supported by other artists is critical to the artistic process. I am quite sure Frederick Varley and the Group of Seven understood this.

In addition to providing the general public with an important opportunity to interact with an accomplished contemporary artist, this 30-year retrospective of the art of Pat Clemes is a way in which skilled artists like her can encourage and mentor their colleagues. Above all, Pat Clemes has given both the general public and the artistic community an enhanced sense of place.

For more information on Frederick Varley, click here.

For information on the Frederick Varley Art Gallery, click here.

For more on the Town of Markham, click here.

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