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"The Milk River and the Sweetgrass Hills"
John Hartman, "The Milk River and the Sweetgrass Hills," 2004, oil on linen, 60 x 66 inches.
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David Alexander, "Rock Bowls," 2004, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 96 inches.
DAVID ALEXANDER AND JOHN HARTMAN, Far and Wide: Alberta Landscapes
Art Gallery of Alberta
By Douglas Maclean
Kudos to the Art Gallery of Alberta for confirming that modern landscapes can be arresting, challenging, and inventive. So much of what is advertised and shown as landscape art does not include these qualities, and is merely wall decoration, complacent and repetitive.
The work by these two artists – David Alexander and John Hartman – is nothing short of fresh and brilliant. The Gallery’s curator’s statement relates the history of landscape art in Canada, and the best landscapes have always been inventive, possibly aggressive, brilliantly painted and perceived.
These qualities certainly pertain to the work of John Hartman, an artist who, in the true tradition of Canadian painters, is not afraid of visiting the far-flung edges of this country, pursuing subjects, painting them in his edgy style. Some years ago he exhibited a huge show of large-scale paintings of Newfoundland, called Big North, that was completely engaging and inventive. In this current body of work, Hartman has again reached his stride and produced a view of Southern Alberta that has not been seen before.
Hartman’s technique – from drawing, to watercolour to an expanded work on paper and then finally to the large canvas – is a time-honoured tradition of studying subject, something which is often completely lacking in commercial landscape production. The results are stunning, particularly the works leading up to his finished paintings. He applies the oils in thick butter strokes, puts in the floating figures, and reveals his brilliant palette choices and his incredible sense of perspective. I find the paintings to be all-consuming and full of life.
In the AGA’s gallery, and the huge open space on the second floor foyer, the work of David Alexander is featured. He was associated with the University of Saskatchewan’s Emma Lake group, and he showed a few early mountain views at the Virginia Christopher Gallery in Calgary.
He had a new take on mountain painting, exploring the landscape close-up – rock, snow, gullies – and not the normal pretty mountain views. Following those first views, he has taken his explorations of the formidable areas only mountaineers explore to new heights. His extensive notebooks and drawings are included in Far and Wide, they represent his devotion to the exacting study of subject.
Alexander fills his brush with paint and makes big strokes, interpreting all of the forms and shapes with excellent drawing and sense of perspective. His subjects could easily fall flat, becoming only patterns, but instead they take the viewer high up into the couloirs, steep avalanche chutes and frozen cliffs of ice and snow. He has accomplished two important things – excellent handling of paint, and the abstract beauty of the subject.