Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Stark Warmth: Prints and Drawings by Thoreau MacDonald

Thoreau MacDonald, Untitled #7 (Canadian Forum Cover), c.1922-32, zinc lithograph print, Tom Thomson Art Gallery Permanent Collection

I recently curated my first exhibition for the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Stark Warmth: Prints and Drawings by Thoreau MacDonald. My background is in historical and early-modern Canadian art; MacDonald's draughtsmanship and sense of design is some of the most economical and elegant out there.

Here is the didactic text that appears in the exhibition.

Strange how lonely the Canadian landscape is, even in southern Ontario, even when it is you depicting it with all the warmth and affection that gets into everything you do.
- Barker Fairley to Thoreau MacDonald, 1973

With always tender and sometimes somber insight Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989) recorded the passing vestiges of pre-modern southern Ontario, its rural landscape, wildlife and older agrarian way of life. MacDonald wrote that, as a child, he just drew because he wanted pictures of things, especially things that were somehow fleeting: from the implements of manual farming to the soaring elm tree, devastated by disease since the 1950s. Claiming to be neither “a naturalist nor an artist, just a fond observer,” MacDonald’s images extol self-reliance and respect for the natural order, and cherish the practices that enrich a community’s life – values upheld by his namesake and kindred spirit, the 19th century American writer and activist Henry David Thoreau. Unpretentious to the core, MacDonald found meaning in art only insofar as it was linked to simpler and mundane aspects of everyday life. For him drawing and printmaking were activities akin to wielding “a well handled axe or scythe,” ones marked by “apparent simplicity and decision.”

Born in Toronto’s High Park region, MacDonald’s formative years were spent in several farming outskirts around the city. The son of founding Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald, Thoreau got his professional start as a teenager assisting his father when he was ill with freelance design commissions. Thoreau rose to art editor at the famed periodical Canadian Forum in the early 1920s and, a decade later, was one of the most respected book designers in Canada. In 1932 he turned to private bookwork under Woodchuck Press, for which many of the images in this exhibition were originally printed. A younger colleague of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, MacDonald’s limited palette, scale and means stand in quiet contrast to his contemporaries. His landscapes are not mythic and roiling wildernesses, but rather ones cut and warmed by human presence. MacDonald’s output was prolific and diverse. He designed certificates and diplomas, labels, bookplates, exhibition catalogues, commissioned prints, Christmas and business cards and stamps from various private and public institutions in Canada and the United States. As a lifelong advocate for conservation and species protection, MacDonald’s imagery is as much appreciated by naturalists and nature lovers as by artists and designers.

Me and retired U of T Forestry Prof Paul Aird. Dr. Aird spoke eloquently from the perspective of a naturalist and conservationist about his love for MacDonald's work at the opening to Stark Warmth on February 8.

Speakers and Contributors to Making Matters

(left to right) Emma Quin (Ontario Crafts Council), Andrew Goss (artist and jeweler), Arlene Gehring (independent curator and writer), Sandra Noble Goss (artist and jeweler), Eric Nay (Associate Dean in Liberal Studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design), Stuart Reid (Director/Curator at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Making Matters...But So Also Sustainability (Part 3)

Here's the final instalment of my three-part recount of the symposium Making Matters: Sustainability and Craft Practices held at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery January 19, 2003.

Eric Nay is currently the Associate Dean of Liberal Studies and Faculty of Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design. His area of interest and expertise is environmental sustainability as it relates to design and architecture. The title of his talk, Sustainable Art and Design: Viewing Craft as Cultural Resistance made a similar opening claim to that of Arlene Gehring's, namely that craft is "inherently sustainable." And, it is as such that craft represents "a significant step in correcting a battery of wrongs." "Craft," continued Nay,

provides a form of active resistance to the erosion of history and culture, the global homogenization of culture and the reliance on petroleum-based by-products (plastics) to provide for all of our worldly needs.

Any of you who read my previous post know the two (and I thought somewhat obvious) problems I raised about establishing any necessary link between craft and sustainability: First, craft materials and practices are not inherently environment-neutral; many are, in fact negative in their toxicity. So, I'm not sure how the case for inherent sustainability can be made. Secondly, if we are going to say that all craft is necessarily sustainable are we willing (or, really, even able) to conceptually exclude any practice that employ techniques or materials that are demonstratively unsustainable? My guess is "no;" to say "yes" would simply result in a glaring "cut the nose to spite the face" event.

Ok, now I'll stop chopping at my old block and get on with the content of Nay's talk, which was as entertaining as it was expansive. Nay provided some wonderfully vivid examples throughout his lecture on how craft addresses the sustainability issue, and his train of thought was a much more stable commute than perhaps my re-hashed criticism suggests.

Nay began his lecture with several reminders of bald-faced cold comfort. First, sustainable practices and ways of life are no longer simply avenues of moral or self-congratulatory choice; they are increasingly government-legislated and legally-enforced initiatives, and this because, of course, they are fast becoming practices of brute necessity. This does not mean that the freemarket drive to make sustainability a sexy lifestyle choice will abate anytime soon. Moreover, he pointed out that several results of becoming more sustainable are not really very sexy at all: increased initial energy and capital costs, for example, which could contribute to the destruction of certain things we value in our material culture along the way.

To the next question of what sustainability has to do with art, craft and design Nay answers: artists and craft practitioners, along with their institutional networks, have a practical messaging role to play in the world. We mustn't simply call out our warnings like a voice in the wilderness; rather, the art and craft legions need to start helping to "visualize how sustainability may be realized...and to broadcast this to the larger population to force the massive paradigm shift that will be required to re-visualize our relationship" to the planet.

Unfortunately, according to Nay, such an imperative is a foreign idea to too many artists, craftspeople and cultural workers in general. Nay lays blame for this ellipsis at the feet of modernist art history and aesthetics. Modernism displaced an older craftsmanship and technique-based criteria of judgement with a formalist one privileging "the visual over other sensory responses." While the influence of formalism in the artworld began to dwindle in the 1970s, it was replaced with a paradigm that ultimately fell even farther from upholding the sort of handmade and de-mechanized craftsmanship Nay links to sustainable practice: "the 1980s and 90s saw art completely degrade and become a quantifiable commodity like pork bellies and coffee futures." Moreover, it was at this very point that many craftspeople themselves began adopting the language and criterion of formalism, thereby setting craft on the dismal course to becoming, to borrow from Marx, the farce on art's tragedy.

It is only now, faced with an irresistible need to make the near future a sustainable one that craft, at its "anthropological root" (a phrase I introduced in the previous post), suddenly emerges as the only viable way forward, not only for art and craft practices, but for society's production needs as a whole. In Nay's view, what is important is not just that craft brings us closer to understanding environmental sustainability by its insistence that one work directly with the earth itself; it is rather that in working with the earth in the way craft demands, at its anthropological root, we are able to shift art and craft theory away from both formalism, on the one hand, and ego-driven artstar entrepreneurialism on the other. Craft, at its essence, "opens up a re-engagement with history and a reintroduction to a material palette provided by nature." Moreover, Nay noted that by encouraging craft through exhibition programming,

We preserve what is precious and restore it by remaking it in a harmonious and sympathetic way that has integrity and practicality, and therefore truth and beauty. We embrace decay and entropy and re-invent materials as they take on new and different lives.

Nay mentioned Mark Jaroszewicz as an example of a maker that is critical, "thoughtful, exploratory, yet completely historically rooted work." Jaroszewicz is a ceramicist who retrieves and uses clay extracted from the earth in the wake of various construction projects in Toronto and around Ontario. As Nay described,

The clay being dredged and disposed of to make room for massive skyscraper footings was useful for ceramics and like local food had an innate connection with the climate, the materiality and the physical quality of the region. Every region has its own unique soil and its own clay that has certain properties that are valuable for those who know what they are looking for, like Mark.

Nay made the mention of Jaroszewicz's practice his concluding point because it embodies, for him, a form of "cultural resistance." Unlike our dominant and (questionably) postindustrial consumer culture, it acknowledges the role the natural world plays in conditioning what we use to make things - or, better yet, the sort of stuff we ought to make things with should we wish a sustainable future. Jaroszewicz uses craft to expose audiences to the traces of a particular region, often their particular region of dwelling, and as such reconnects them to always already present link between the earth, the hand and art.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Making Matters...But So Also Sustainability (Part 2)

The following is the second instalment of a three-part recount of the symposium Making Matters: Sustainability and Craft Practices held at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery January 19, 2003.

Arlene Gehring, "Elemental Connections"

Independent Canadian curator and writer Arlene Gehring focused her attention on a recent exhibition she curated at the Ontario Crafts Council. Mounted between September 27 and November 12 2007, Elemental Connections: An Exhibition of Sustainable Craft brought together artists and craftspeople from across the country whose work makes handmade use of naturally-occurring and, in one sense or another, renewable materials. A comprehensive list of the artists that took part in the exhibition appears below.

One of the first things Gehring pointed out was the range of approaches artists in the exhibition have to the whole idea of craft. Elemental Connections did not privilege only the aesthetically- or conceptually-innovative. Sure, there were works that blurred the presupposed boundaries between craft and art, either by using recognized craft materials in non-traditional ways or by producing traditional craft objects in unorthodox ways. And many of the contributors clearly thought and made not only outside established traditions of craft production, but some also embraced both suggestive and subversive themes. With the stark and precise presentation sense of a true-blue ornithologist, Tara Bursey (http://www.tarabursey.blogspot.com/) fashions physiologically-correct replicas of actual bird wings using onion skin. The wings at once seem to flutter against the paper they are mounted to, and to stain it. Chantal Gilbert's (http://www.chantalgilbert.com/) Bestioles series, in which she mounts her handmade pocket knives onto armatures resembling insect bodies, merges exquisite craftsmanship with a kind of sci-fi feminist-surrealism to produce irresistibly threatening fetish objects.

But Bursey and Gilbert's contemporary and thematically-driven use of craft methods and materials were not the only approaches witnessed in Elemental Connections.
Given the underlying premise of the exhibition - craft demonstrating the knowledgeable interaction between the artist's hand and naturally-occurring and renewable media - there was, for Gehring, no reason to exclude craftspeople working in what she called "older traditions." By older traditions she was referring to those whose work reflects the unsullied application of established techniques - bowl-turning, or weaving for example - toward producing the mostly functional objects commonly associated with those techniques - bowls, baskets, etc. Examples of such works in the exhibition included the turned burl-bowls of Don Stinson and the woven kelp-gourd bowls of Anne Boquist.

However, most of the pieces stood somewhere between the unorthodox and the older traditions, incorporating both. The corn dollies of Daniel Kramer, for example: woven since Antiquity out of the last sheaf at the end of harvest as a way of containing the field's spirit, corn dollies were then ploughed back into the earth the following season to ensure prosperous harvest the following year. Seen today, they resonate as at once a sort of harbinger of potential environmental collapse and also remind us that powerful symbols can come from the most modest of means.

Apart from the craft and art work she introduced, my interest and curiosity was piqued also by a two-part claim Gehring made (which was subsequently reiterated by the symposium's keynote, Eric Nay). Gehring stated that an ideal "common cause" exists among craftspeople to produce objects that are environmentally sustainable. She then went onto say that, at its root, "craft production is inherently about environmental sustainability." I was, at first, confused and incredulous; was she saying that there are no craft methods and materials that are ecologically invasive or detrimental to the biosphere in some way? The very fact that craft materials cannot always be obtained locally, and that some materials and by-products are notoriously toxic seems to cast doubt on this assertion. One artist in her own exhibition, Paul Grey Diamond (http://www.martenarts.com/Artists/artist.aspx?workID=bio&artistID=59) fashions beautiful turned wooden vases using Banksia seed pods, which, Gehring herself claimed, are only obtainable from Australia; surely the energy required to import of such an exotic material might form the basis from which one could argue that the work is not, strictly speaking, inherently sustainable. In all fairness, although this is a legitimate question, I think it doesn't get at the crux of what Gehring intended.

What I think Gehring meant when she linked craft necessarily to sustainability was that, considered at its anthropological root, craft knowledge is fundamental, basic, essential: it is a knowledge gained from working with one's own two hands on and with the earth. In other words, it is a knowledge embodied, and therefore a knowledge borne from the body's interaction with the direct and immediate environment. With this sort of knowledge comes a keener sensibility about the value of resources.

At least I think that's what Gehring meant.

This sounds well-and-good, but it also makes me a bit uneasy. Gehring is not simply offering a contingent definition of what craft happens to be; she is making an aesthetic value judgement about what good craft ought to be. Or rather, she is building the ethical obligation to make craft environmentally sustainable into the sensual or aesthetic appreciation of the craft object. Given her understanding of what craft is, any object manufactured in ways, or using materials, which contradict the sustainability clause is simply excluded from the possibility of being good craft. Are we really ready to exclude all objects made using some form of petroleum by-product from the pale? What about inherent toxicity of some of the materials inherent to particular craft traditions? Moreover, would it be possible to draw hard-and-fast lines between things made by hand and those disconnected from the hand? I couldn't help but feel that what Gehring was trying to offer up with Elemental Connections was a radically puritanical understanding of craft. This is not necessarily a negative criticism of either her or the exhibition. The pieces and the curatorial selection of those pieces seemed exquisite. I'm more intrigued than anything that someone has the wherewithal to insist on a necessary connection between the value of something as craft, and the way that something was produced.

Elemental Connections included work by Anne Boquist, Tara Bursey, Karen Cantine, Joanna Close, Paul Gray Diamond, Phyllis Erwin, Mary Fox, Chantal Gilbert, Andrea Graham, Vivienne Jones, Daniel Kramer, Nancy Latchford, Ryan Legassicke, Julie Lockau, Les Manning, Kirk Mceathron, Catherine Paleczny, Bernadette Pratt, Ann Schneider, Don Stinson, Ione Thorkelsson.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Making Matters...But So Also Sustainability (Part 1)

Throughout 2007 Canadian art galleries and institutions spearheaded exhibitions and events in honour of craft professionals, and toward shining a brighter critical light on craft practices. The year culminated in the major three-day conference, NeoCraft, held in Halifax back in November. On January 19 2008, as a belated addition to Canada Craft Year, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery played host to the one-day symposium Making Matters: Sustainability and Craft Practices. Co-partnered with the Ontario Craft Council, and contemporary to a pair of its own craft-centred exhibitions (Makers Return and Craft Convergence) Making Matters participants explored the history and economics of craft production in and around Owen Sound since the late 1970s, unpacked the discourse surrounding the meaning and significance of the handmade object, and posed questions related to the environmental sustainability of craft practices. Below is the first of three or four summarizing accounts I'll be posting about the symposium.

Sandra Noble Goss, "A History of Makers"
The first speaker was Owen Sound jeweler and artist, Sandra Noble Goss. Today she runs Goss Design with her husband Andrew, but between August 1981 and January 1986 she was a founding member in the fabled and fated Makers group, a collective of jewelers and metal smiths, ceramic, wood and textile artists, painters and photographers who ran a gallery that sold original works of art and craft in downtown Owen Sound. Goss provided an historical account that, I think, serves as a case study of the universal challenges faced by any sincere, creative and critically-minded individual or group desiring to eke out a sincere, creative and critically-minded living in small-town Ontario in the early 1980s - or perhaps today, for that matter.

Makers started with 14 founding partners, each of whom forked over the initial investment money required to get the business off the ground. There were also 10 associates, members who exhibited and sold work in the gallery but did not carry the same degree of responsibility for gallery operations. Most were in their 20's and 30's, many with young families, and all were in the trial stage of kick-starting artistic careers. Most were also relative newcomers to Owen Sound, and lacked the sort of oligarchical and nepotic connections that could have given them a leg-up. They worked as a collective, trading volunteer hours bookkeeping, manning and cleaning the gallery, striking and mounting new solo exhibitions on a break-neck weekly schedule, hosting openings, composing membership newsletters and all the while making new work to show and sell. From Goss' description, the running attitude of the collective seems to have been a paradoxical combination of stubborn integrity and ad hoc practicality. None denied the enterprise would be a hard row to hoe, but the partners, all children of the post-Massey Report culture-revved Canada of the late-1960s, believed firmly that people have at least a latent appreciation for original works of art and craft - a latent appreciation that could be enlivened with enough exposure. One attempt to garner greater attention from the town was to mount a fish/fishing themed exhibition, Splash, during the annual salmon derby. Goss chuckled as she recalled how it was reasoned that the fishermen, or at least their wives, would surely be lured by the cross-marketing.

However, it didn't turn out this way. Not much did. The gallery never made money, volunteers began to burn-out in droves, and several of the original partners backed out, leaving 11 at the end. Added to all this was the economic climate of recession in the early-1980s; the harsh perception that art and craft are expendible luxuries coupled with the harsh reality that people in small town working class Ontario faced hard times and simply didn't have much disposable income. Goss ruminated that had Makers been able to hang on for another few years they may have benefited from the eventual economic upturn. As it stands the collective disbanded and the gallery disappeared in early 1986. Of all founding members, only two - Sandra and Andrew Goss - are still working in their Makers-era field.

On paper, Goss' account read like a confession of youthful naivety, a testament to absent acumen, a litany of heart-aching failures. But reflecting on the number of artists and craftspeople living and working in and around Owen Sound today - many of whom were associates in the gallery - I can't help but rationally reconstruct the Makers experiment as a huge unwieldy tree that, when it fell, nonetheless helped level the road to future artistic endeavours in the town. At the very least the demise of Makers helped ground its founders and forced them each and all to take a long and hard look at their personal priorities. But, more positively, spearheaded by the original DIY generation, Makers created a scene, and out from this a legacy of creative stickwithitness that continues to hum today. The Makers troupe faced challenges with tenacity (that it was sometimes consolidated sometimes divided matters little) and with a glorious abandon that speaks of resolve and committed belief. Much has changed in Owen Sound since the early 1980s, not the least being that the city was designated a "cultural capital" by the federal government in 2004 - a not unremarkable feat for this tough little Tory-blued/blue-collared port of under 25,000 people. I'm not sure who could have foreseen such recognition in 1981, but its very clear that Makers played an important role in establishing the conditions that make it a reality today.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Peter Beckett: Painting for Landscape

Thomson and the consequential members of the Group… tried to subdue the
space not just in front but behind their heads. Theirs was not to be a
replication made simply through a jellied lens set in the skull, but an
apprehension of sound and odour coming from the nerve endings.
-Harold Town

If there is one artistic concept from the past that needs revitalization in today’s world, “en plein air” is it. While previously practiced by Delacroix, Turner, Corot and others, painting en plein air – or, outside the studio “in the open air” – gained its most famous expression in the 1870s, with the French Impressionists. Freshly armed with the latest artistic arsenal, mass-produced tube paint, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cassatt and company burst forth from their studios and descended onto the streets, riverbanks, into domestic spaces and the countryside, eager to register the passing moments of weather, atmosphere and light. Many of these Impressionists were also inspired by the photographic conception of form as reflected light, and by a relatively new discovery in colour perception: the theory that a shade of any given hue is most accurately and intensely represented by making visibly present the hue’s complementary, rather than pure black. A colour is not sensed individually, but is perceived in harmony with its antithesis – red-to-green, orange-to-purple, and so on. Thus, in many Impressionist paintings a cast shadow is not a muddy thing at all, but often contains the most complex visual description of illumination.

Plein air painting of the Impressionist variety was also timely for sociological reasons. Its practitioners produced enduring visual metaphors that helped capture something of the new hectic bustle, social anxiety and class antagonisms that defined modern life under emergent industrial capitalism: holistic patterning, non-hierarchical composition, quotidian subject matter, high-key and sometimes lurid colour, sudden swaths of loose and thickly-applied brushwork. While most of the Impressionists were not really political radicals, the form their art took irresistibly came to illustrate Marx’s famous dictum that, with modernity, everything solid “melts into air.”

Arguably many of the destabilizing conditions and competing social moods that defined late-19th century France are with us today with even greater intensity. Yet, despite this, painting like an Impressionist in this day-in-age can seem pretty innocuous. What, after all, encapsulates the Sunday dilettante stereotype more than a plein air painter of gardens, street-scenes and forests? Why is this? Well, for one, if everything solid inevitably dissipates, then this must include our associations to Impressionist painting. We of the 21st century are, for the most part, acclimatized to the technical signs and devices of Impressionism – as we are with most other modern art “isms.” The once radical visual cues of the modern plein air tradition are rendered insubstantial and common by their routine and commoditised appearance in, for example, big summer blockbuster exhibitions at major art galleries; or, if we avoid art galleries like the plague, in the commodities and simulacra of popular culture more generally. Renoir pencil-case anyone?

So, is painting en plein air a done deal, its demise not worth much grief? Why not just leave the idea of making and celebrating art in the out-of-doors to earnest hobbyists? At the very least such a non-response might help coax the more historically literate among them to finally head inside, get dry, and start directing more concerted creative effort at something that’s…well, thought-provoking and relevant. Why not?

Here’s why not: because never has the idea of being in the open and making art exposed to the vicissitudes of an altering climate been more resonant and relevant than today. We in the early 21st century are not, as yet, so comfortably estranged from the environmental forces of our planet and its atmosphere. The tangible evidence proving a disjuncture between how the earth works and self-regulates and how human beings, especially in our “developed” world, live in its midst is mountainous. Thankfully, our cities do not yet require the atmospheric protection of huge firmamental domes popularized in science fiction (unless you count central air conditioning). And yet we should be disquieted that today’s best dystopian sci-fi often resonates more like in-the-ballpark speculation than mere fantasy, that its writers can draw on the projections of this here-and-now world for their most cynical takes on what we have to look forward to. These authors reflect what the eternally pessimistic 19th century German philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer said of Dante: they draw ideas from the actual world in order to write their Inferno.
Today it’s not the line between the natural world and the artist’s studio that a true plein air practice highlights, nor any fissure between an aesthetic establishment and an avant-garde, as it was in 1870s France. Rather, we must creatively revitalize what the expression en plein air means. And we can do so by attaching it to those artistic practices engaged in expressing conscious concern for the natural world, and our rooted place on the planet. What sort of artistic engagement am I thinking of?

Peter Beckett

What has me rethinking the idea of creative production en plein air are what I’ll call the painting-installations of the Walter’s Falls-based artist, Peter Beckett. In a word, Beckett paints pictures that respond to his experience of the natural environment. His paintings are not so much objectified depictions of this environment as they are raw responses to it. By virtue of their having been created within, and in response to, a natural surround, the paintings in a sense belong to this surround. Beckett’s paintings are consequently most effectively exhibited as components of larger environment-based installations; his paintings work best as objects literally entwined with the world, not set apart from it, like traditional landscape painting. While I grant the idea of painting as a visual response to pan-sensory stimuli is not exactly a new idea – here in Canada Jock Macdonald had a similar notion in the late-1930s, which he claimed to have retrieved from Cezanne – Beckett’s practice revitalizes and poeticizes it with contemporary resonance.

Beckett was born in Cooksville, now eastern Mississauga, at a time when a seemingly endless phalanx of barns, livestock herds and crop fields made it difficult to know precisely where Mississauga ended and Etobicoke began. The two, of course, remain indistinguishable to this day, just for different reasons. What he calls “the systematic destruction of the landscape of his youth” has given Beckett a greater appreciation for the natural integrity of the farmland settlement region where he lives today and anywhere he travels. It has also provided him with greater appreciation for making his art outside, in response to the open air. Beckett has plied his unique plein air practice in various locations across North America, from Grey County to northern Ontario, east to (and including) the Atlantic Ocean, and south to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has also spent a spring painting in Paris and a winter in Ibiza, Spain. Since the early 1980s Beckett has developed a practice that is both firmly his own, and clearly steeped in at least two traditions, one superficially and the other more deeply.

On the surface, just looking at his work, Beckett might seem to be another abstract painter with an expressionist bent; that is, he seems driven by a combination of existential angst and formalist repose. He writes about painting as a process, not an end, as a means of getting beyond the ego, losing self-consciousness. After Abstract Expressionism’s halcyon days in the 1940s and 50s I think this sort of rationale has actually had the opposite effect, making much gestural abstraction appear more like celebrations of subjectivity and individual consciousness than either’s negation. Anyway, the drips and broad brushstrokes, the traditional hallmarks of unchained individualism, creativity, spiritual becoming, and emotional wrenching, appear throughout Beckett’s painting. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, early Philip Guston, and especially Franz Klein are all here, along with admittedly cooler moments reminiscent of Larry Poons and Ross Bleckner. Beckett’s surfaces bear the bold signs of mid-20th century abstraction – push/pull, edge, field, movement, flatness/depth – and thus, on their own, appear to be resolutely self-referential and introspective.

But I reiterate on the surface because, despite the fact that Beckett has and continues to shown his work within conventional gallery spaces, it is not so much the paintings alone that I find so captivating (although individually they are often beautiful), but their collective obedience to a centre of gravity outside the canvas and the gallery walls. This shared nexus is none other than the elemental coyote-yipping world of trees, wind, moon and snow. Beckett’s creative process is fundamentally ignited by his onsite experience of these outdoors. The drips, blobs and brushstrokes of his paintings emerge as responses to the sights, sounds, memories, and scents of specific places in real time and, as I’ve already mentioned, his work is at its strongest when it is integrated and displayed as part of these places.

The paintings are not only connected to an encroaching nature, they are also intimately tied to each other in an almost genealogical way. The creative lineage of one painting almost invariably overlaps onto another. Beckett’s work space, with a radius extending indefinitely from the top floor of his house to the sprawling escarpment glades and rolling fields that surround his lodging, is always something of a studio-cum-delivery room. To be sure, not all the paintings respond to the same set of sensory and emotional experience in an identical way. Some have lines that appear more plotted than others; some are explosive in colour, while others verge on the monochromatic. But there is always a sort of family resemblance suggested by the way Beckett’s creative production just seems to flow. In Beckett’s mind a painting, as it develops, will either take-off from where a previous one left-off, or become absorbed into it; and the finished painting will, in turn, become the immediate catalyst of future imagery. He writes, “when working from the model, a gesture drawing is the logical place to begin. When beginning without a destination in mind, the work may discover a gesture as a conclusion....or as the next beginning.” In any case, it makes little sense to think of any one of Beckett’s paintings as an isolated objet d’art; all finished works remain visually and conceptually connected to a familial past and future. (Beckett has written about the exception to this rule: the odd and rare experience of producing an “orphan,” a painting that doesn’t seem to fit within the overall flow of production).

Beckett summarizes the driving inspiration and continuity behind his work:
I see nature with its fabulous structures and infinite complexity as a source of
my sense of visual order. The paintings reflect something of nature’s own
diversity in their colour, shapes and textures. However, there is an attempt to
create more than a visual record; to include such things as the smell of the
woods or the sound of the rain.
Beckett’s idea of capturing “more than a visual record” demonstrates two things. First, it indicates his conscious and revitalized engagement with the plein air painting tradition, even if he doesn’t name it. Beckett’s practice is really about documenting a world that he is enmeshed in and, paradoxically, remains forever alien to and cut-off from. While painting, in the end, is always robustly visual, what Beckett’s document can’t be merely visual because the world they seek passage within elicits an embodied multi-sensory response; it does not wait for his contemplation, but comes at him, at us as it were, from all directions, requiring that our synapses fire on all cylinders. Constancy and over-stimulation define the tempo and temper of Beckett’s work.

The second thing Beckett’s statement reveals is that the single-most important backdrop to his work might not really be the self-referential and introspective story of modern abstraction at all, but Harold Town’s Tom Thomson. In his effusive, macho, curmudgeonly and thoroughly fascinating take on Thomson in The Silence and the Storm, Town (himself an important Canadian painter and founding member of the seminal 1950s Toronto Painters Eleven group) arrives at a pair of entwined conclusions important to us here. One, that it was Thomson’s “apprehension of sound and odour,” in addition his fidelity to visual observation, that made him such an accomplished painter of plein air subjects. Two, that Thomson, had he lived beyond 1917, would have been one of Canada’s first abstract painters, and one of its best. (Incidentally, it was Joan Murray who first postulated this latter theory in The Art of Tom Thomson from 1971). In other words, Town thinks that, in a very direct way, the sort of attending to the senses required of true painting en plein air is an important precondition for, not a hurdle to, the development of a mature understanding of abstract painting. Beckett, I don’t think, would choose Town’s exact words to describe what he does. His purpose is not really to use painting to “subdue” that natural world around him. If anything, he taps his experiences of this world in order to infuse his painting with untamed animistic energy. But Beckett would like the idea that, as an artist, he processes “the space not just in front but behind” his head.

The best way to experience Beckett’s paintings then are as installations, as part of the environments in which they were made. Integrated as such, his work helps to revitalize both the plein air landscape and abstract painting traditions. His is an art practice that is in constant call-and-response dialogue with the planet itself, and in a very unsentimental way makes us remember that we as individuals are, and remain, connected and overwhelmingly subject to environmental conditions. This is not a mere hippie truism. It is this fundamental link that will catch us off guard, should we choose to forget it. Sure, our raw inspections and interactions with the world present us generally with a very stable picture; and meteorologists, engineers, physicists and others of that ilk have uncovered all sorts of patterns that give us often very good explanatory and predictive power for otherwise utterly miraculous things like tornadoes, jumbo jets and the colour spectrum. But this stability merely underscores our irrevocable contract with the earth. Beckett’s painting-installations are, at their height, sublime and frighteningly raw. They remind us that in the end, whether or not we heed it, nature will always out, will always have the last word. One precondition to realizing our place in the world is to, like Beckett, bask in its flow.

Image Credits (top to bottom)

Premonition/Vision, 2000-07, oil on canvas, 48 x 66"

Untitled, 2007, oil on plywood, 30 x 48"

Untitled, 2007, oil on canvas, 36 x 48"

Untitled, 2007, oil on canvas-covered plywood, 24 x 68"

Images courtesy of the artist