Landscapes for the End of Time
Winnipeg Art Gallery
May 10 - August 5, 2012
By Marlene Milne
The first question I asked when contacted for this assignment was: “When’s the deadline?” Time rules our lives in ways we rarely consider and, in an arbitrary, ambiguous and ambivalent fashion. We define ourselves by arrivals and departures. We place ourselves in timelines that are sometimes linear, sometimes circular. Sometimes, when waiting, time moves slowly. Sometimes, the result of an instant of carelessness can last a lifetime. Yet, inexorably, our time runs out. Despite our attempts to catch the moment, it can never be preserved or retrieved.
Six of eight oil paintings in Stephen Hutchings’ exhibition, Landscapes for the End of Time, are huge, suspended low and, because of superb lighting, doubled by reflections on the shiny black floor. When approached, the paintings slowly swallow their mirror images. They seem to glow from the inside out, yet they hold the patina of age. They recall Turner or Constable, but there are no ships, ruins, people, carts or animals. There are no cues or clues to place them in a specific time or space. Roads creep through bushes and bracken, then disappear.
Reading the panels casts light on such enigmas. Hutchings begins with one of his own photographs, reduces it digitally to black and white, then compositionally modifies and recolours it. He projects the image onto a gessoed canvas and uses the classic grid system to draw the forms in charcoal. He then refines them with an eraser to provide nuances of light, shading and depth. Layers of thin glazes of oil pigment create the final effect.
The music that inspired these paintings is Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941), based on a passage from Chapter 10 of Revelations, wherein the archangel descends and announces “this shall be time no longer.” Apparently, the composer also subverted the musical conventions of time by separating rhythm and meter.
In his notes to the score, Messiaen divided the work into eight sections and gave each a title (e.g. No. 3 is Abyss of Birds) and provided a brief comment. Similarly, each work by Hutchings has its own title and a numerical reference to the score. But Hutchings is not depicting the music any more than he is representing a particular place. Rather, he uses the glazes like layers of sound that overlap, enrich and highlight each other. He plays with the pitch of hue, using a complementary limited palette (Messiaen mentions “blue-orange chords”) and the parallel structure between nature and the quartet: clarinet, violin, piano and cello = undergrowth, trees, sky and water.
The exhibition, circulated by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, includes two eight-minute videos on a single monitor that are meant to address transformation and links between different temporal states. The videos, Bush and The Boat, with music by Hutchings’ son, Sebastian, take us on a metaphorical journey. We move from a white screen or the blank canvas of birth, through the choices and chances of our lives, our experiences refracted through our attitudes towards change, perception and eternity. For instance, when the white light at the beginning of Bush begins to morph, a roofline appears in muted color and, gradually, the image of a medieval barn with a bush in front of it. Slowly, the colour becomes black and white as the bush fills the screen and the building disappears. As the camera continues to zoom in, the bush assumes the subtle tones of Hutchings’ palette, while becoming increasingly distorted. From the darkness, a flash of orange explodes into particoloured pixels, then dissolves into white.
Hutchings’ exhibition induces a liminal state akin to that of a vision quest.
I have shared my journey. You have time to make your own.