A frightening but hopeful vision

Forget the pastoral scenes from The Group of Seven: See you tomorrow's landscape paintings represent a more urbanized Canada.
Forget the pastoral scenes from The Group of Seven: See you tomorrow's landscape paintings represent a more urbanized Canada.
Credit: 
Jeff Kloosterman

Fine Art Review: See you tomorrow @ The Agnes Etherington Art Centre until April 8

Stepping into See you tomorrow, an exhibit of paintings at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s Samuel J. Zacks gallery, your first sensation is of nearly overpowering vertigo.

The dizziness comes from the small exhibit’s massive main attraction, Eleanor Bond’s “Later some industrial refugees from communal settlements in a logged valley in BC.”

The painting depicts a rugged mountainside that has been subject to total deforestation, with flimsy, bleached splinters, the only evidence of the forests that must have existed there.

This devastation is contrasted with the clusters of near-identical breadbox trailers and houses, complete with Adirondack chairs and above-ground swimming pools; a community—“refugees,” according to the painting’s title, from the unrelenting destruction of industry and progress—rises from
the ashes of a pillaged wilderness. What’s most striking about this painting, however, is its perspective:
viewed from the air, the immense landscape, still beautiful though defiled, gives you the sensation
of having your face pressed to the window of a careening float plane, or a dreamlike, swooping sensation.

Janet Allen, the exhibit’s curator, said Bond’s piece evokes a human impulse to create community.
“We hope the landscape will always be hospitable and provide for us,” she said. “It’s both a frightening vision of a ruined nature, but also it’s hopeful and positive about future possibilities … capturing a lot about the way we think about the landscape.” The exhibit’s theme is landscape, but don’t show up
expecting any pastoral scenes à la Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson or your favourite Group of Seven member; the paintings in See you tomorrow represent an almost total departure from traditional Canadian landscape painting. Allen said this gallery is usually home to the centre’s newest acquisitions, but these paintings fit together particularly well.

“They really speak to each other in interesting ways about the way we look at landscape today … the
idea of fantasy and utopian ideas along with dystopic depictions,” she said.

“How do we think of the land now? They’re acculturated landscapes; they’re depicted with human occupation or use.”

Finding a way to set up the paintings so that they complemented each other proved more difficult than Allen expected. “For me, it was a real experiment putting the works together,” Allen said. “Almost all have water images—a symbolic form representation of, literally, fluidity. A source of life, even though in many of these images the water wouldn’t really be potable.”

By far the exhibit’s best corner, at least from a curatorial perspective, is that shared by Nick Ostoff ’s “untitled (pool)” and Douglas Kirkton’s “Marsh.” The former depicts a sterile and vacant irregularly shaped backyard pool surrounded by an immaculate lawn—a human-made landscape devoid of humans. The latter is a living, pulsating mass of colour: bright, abstract, textured and tactile
flashes of yellow mingled with black and red on varying shades of green buzz with activity and life.

Their placement together effectively juxtaposes two entirely different interpretations of landscape painting as an art form.

At the same time, Allen is quick to point out, the black in both paintings allows them to “speak to
each other.” Allen said these paintings present a different form of Canadian landscape painting
than those of early 20th-century Canadian painters.

“Some of the ideas about wildness or national identity … don’t seem to be present,” she said. “This is sort of an elegiac sense of nature being eroded or spoiled or otherwise unavailable. “Even though the Group of Seven were going out from the city … Canadian society now is much more urban than it was 100 years ago or 80 years ago.”

The exhibit takes its title from a Brent Roe painting featuring the words, “rocks and trees/several pleasing shades of blue/the price of gold/questions and answers/ he old barn fell down/kiss my
powdered ass/see you tomorrow,” on a colourful backdrop of swirling red scribbles, black splatters and doodles. Although the other five paintings are underwhelming when viewed beside Bond’s, the exhibit manages to hang together well. If anything,the show’s biggest disappointment is its small size: the six paintings seem to barely scratch the surface of the landscape dialogue they initiate.

Allen said that once she started selecting pieces, she realized the exhibit could have been a lot bigger.
“It would be sort of a slightly different show,” she said. “I was really excited when I got this combination, and I was really hoping I could pull it off inthis place.”

Allen said she hopes the exhibit makes visitors question their awareness of nature and how they
interact with it. “I think there’s kind of a playful sense of critical thought—I always think it’s good for people to experience that,” she said. “Even though the subject matter here is pessimistic, there is a streak of playfulness in the work that suggests the potential for good outcomes.”

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