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Robert Sinclair, "Harvest Moon", watercolour/paper
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Sistered Flip (Bow Valley Series) Three Sisters
Robert Sinclair,"Sistered Flip (Bow Valley Series) Three Sisters", watercolour/paper
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Snowbound (Bow Valley Series) Three Sisters
Robert Sinclair, "Snowbound (Bow Valley Series) Three Sisters", watercolour/paper
ROBERT SINCLAIR, Dust of Days
Willock and Sax Gallery
April 8 - 14, 2010
By Mary-Beth Laviolette
Born in 1939 in Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, Robert Sinclair hails from a generation of artists who, with the western landscape in mind, sought to bring fresh new perspectives. They were all born before the Second World War and in Alberta, this would include, among others, Norman Yates, Harry Savage (his non-representational watercolours) and for awhile, Takao (Tak) Tanabe. Theirs was a modernist perspective; in favour of evoking a sense of limitless space and a paring down of the landscape to its most basic elements. Comfortable with the language of abstraction, you could almost say that the landscape under their influence became almost immaterial, more about a state of mind - best left to the viewer’s imagination.
In a few instances, like Norman Yates and Robert Sinclair, their approach was also informed by the belief that the Group of Seven – no matter what the claims about their art representing a national school - was largely a regional phenomena and perhaps even far-removed for those who called the prairies ‘home.’ At least that’s what Sinclair understood as a young man; feeling there was still room in Canadian landscape for something “like no one else had done before.”
During the mid-1970s, when the Edmonton-based artist found himself being feted by such institutions as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Edmonton Art Gallery, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and others, his use of watercolour was even also interpreted as an alternative “response to the thick impasto of our national school.” Acrylic paint was also employed sparingly by the artist as create stains of subtle colour on raw canvas. This method has persisted, as all three recent exhibitions in Banff and Edmonton show, along with an emphasis on drawing that is as deceptively informal and lyrical as it is spare.
In addition, as Sinclair was developing his signature style, the era was rife with a dizzying number of new art movements like Pop Art, Geometric Abstraction, Minimalism and in abstract painting, especially, the ubiquitous stripe. With the savvy awareness of a young artist, Sinclair’s response was to insert into his barely-there landscapes a stripe of a more quotidian type: the road. It all made perfect sense to this prairie dweller who knew well the sensation of driving on those endless western highways.
Across the undulating plains and through the mountains, the road theme followed the artist until the 1990s when it all but disappeared from his landscapes, leaving the hills and mountains, cliffs and peaks, snowfields and valleys, sunrises and sunsets, moon and sky the visual subject of his art. In comparison to his earlier more anonymous landscapes, these later paintings were filled-in with a little more descriptive detail, certainly more atmosphere and a feeling that such places, as depicted, might in fact exist somewhere. The artist continues to draw and paint from his memory and imagination, but overall, there is more visual substance in his recent artworks of the last decade. They were also the highlight of two of the Sinclair exhibitions: Travel Log (Willock & Sax Gallery, Banff) and Cusp (Scott Gallery, Edmonton).
The largest in number of works though, was Dust of Days at the Whyte Museum featuring a very generous donation of artworks by Sinclair to the institution. It was here that a survey of his art from the 1970s to the present was on display. In addition to the landscapes were his Botanics, an ongoing and by any measure in Canada at least, a distinctive series of wildflowers and other floral plants. I have always been attracted to this body of watercolours and acrylics by Sinclair. As living things, his treatment of these plants go beyond the decorative and merely descriptive; imbued as they are - without seeming ridiculous – with personality and character. Cropped and sometimes framed within a drawn square, let’s just say as subjects, the Botanics are given a figurative presence, capable of conveying something beyond mere leaves, stems and petals.
It was intriguing, too, to see once again, a selection of Sinclair’s acrylic sculptures from the 1970s and ‘80s where the landscape-road theme was transformed into three-dimensional form, almost like a cardboard cut-out. Made during a time when modern sculpture needed to be big if not bigger-than-big to be considered ‘serious’ art, the modest, pedestal size of these heated, handformed works put them in a category of their own. Also, constructed on a small scale, is what the artist refers to as his framed ‘paper folds,’ simplified landscapes which owe their special existence to a sheet of paper, folded and cut. The concept of the ‘folded’ appeared as well in the ingenuous Artist’s Albums (2009). Featuring four Moleskin Japanese-style notebooks that come with accordion pages, Sinclair carefully filled each one with a continuous 360 degree drawing of a landscape whose delicacy in execution and drawing is breathtaking. He is a practicing Buddhist and perhaps all these responses, including the paintings, represent a kind of spiritual act made into a material form.
There is no question that Sinclair has dwelled on the western environment from many different angles. As the years have progressed, he has also considered in more specific terms such areas as Jasper, Banff’s Bow Valley, the Willmore wilderness, Waterton and further away, Newfoundland’s dramatic Tablelands in the Gros Morne region. All convey an engagement with the particularities of a place without losing the personal, understated interpretation that renders them a Sinclair landscape. The scale of his paintings varies and there are times when the smaller scale works resonate more vividly than the larger ones. In the case of the latter, for instance, it’s sometimes a matter of a vast sky represented by an overly large and banal field of colour. If it’s meant to be a spiritual metaphor, then it’s an overstatement.
Since 1965, the now retired University of Alberta professor in art has had 73 solo exhibitions and 47 group shows making Robert Sinclair an artist who has dedicated a long stint of time to re-imaging how the western landscape might be recalled and remembered. At the Whyte exhibition, Sinclair’s practice was mapped-out and given some context, while together, all three venues demonstrated that the artist is still hard at work connecting to what has sustained him both artistically and above all, spiritually.