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Elsa Mayhew (b. Victoria, 1916. Died Victoria, 2004), "Farewell" (1959), Screen print from woodcut 84/100 19.5 x 12.5 inches.
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Molly Privett (b. England, 1905. Date of death unknown), "Dusk" (1965), Oil paint on board 19 x 23 ½ inches.
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Richard Ciccimarra (b. Austria, 1924. Died Greece, 1973), "Solitary Figure" (c. 1966), Charcoal and watercolour on paper, 7 x 9 inches.
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Margaret Peterson (b. Seattle, Wash., 1902. Died Victoria, 1997), "Untitled" (c.1962), Tempera on watercolour paper 15 ½ x 22 inches.
Mercurio Gallery, Victoria, BC
October 1 to 31, 2010
By Brian Grison
The exhibition, Emily's Revenge, has a complex history and agenda. It was originally intended to focus exclusively on modernist women artists, and this review focuses on two such women painters. However, art by these women is so difficult to find that Kym Hill, the gallery owner, was forced to include modernist male artists. For the usual reasons having to do with prejudice, art made by men is still generally treated better by time.
The title of the exhibition is interesting. Emily Carr's revenge was, and still is, rendered on behalf of those few struggling women artists of the generation following hers who were not followers of the English academic picturesque plein-air sketching and Sunday painting traditions that dominated the art-scene in Victoria during Carr's lifetime and still does today. The exhibition includes the work of important Victoria artists, such as Margaret Peterson, Molly Privett, Elsa Mayhew and Ina Uhtoff, as well as Max Bates, Richard Ciccimarra, Herbert Seibner and Bill West.
The Richard Ciccimarra drawing, Solitary Figure, is typical of this artist's pessimistic view of life. The rather forlorn little drawing was made with charcoal and either watercolour or sepia ink washes. It shows a rather schematized male standing in the left foreground of an empty landscape. The figure is motionless and slightly slumped to the left. The face is oriented to the right, but without details we cannot claim it is actually looking to the right. There are no other anatomic or clothing details; the figure is a disembodied silhouette evoking alienation and apathy. The only indication of place is a double horizontal charcoal line suggesting a low horizon, hill or sand dune blocking a view of the ocean. These horizontal contours pass right through the figure, accentuating its existential emptiness. Despite this anatomy of melancholy, the drawing is beautiful; it reminds us that modern life, especially for the serious artist, is not cozy and warm.
The untitled tempera on paper drawing by Margaret Peterson is rather more enthusiastic about life. While perhaps influenced by First Nations art from Mexico to Alaska, the drawing in earthy reds, yellows and black suggests a frieze of ancient x-ray style Australian Aboriginal or African pictographs rather than twentieth-century North American First Nations design and motifs. The transparent schematic stick figures, open and closed circles and zigzagging patterns floating in a reddish atmosphere speaks of an ancient narrative that nobody knows how to read anymore. At the same time, the painting conveys Peterson's empathy with the New York School's pursuit of the 'primitive' symbol, as seen in the early abstract paintings of Adolph Gottleib and Jackson Pollock.
The Molly Privett canvas, Dusk, in oil on board, conjures up the innocence of North American modernist painting before the Second World War. The canvas is divided into four unequal quadrants and within each there is a semi-abstract vignette of city architecture barely decipherable in the shadows and dim light of late evening. Without considering the colours Privett employs, the compositional device and architectural abstraction she empliys is reminiscent of the whimsical deconstructions of the city that artists such as Stuart Davis and Irene Rice Pereita engaged in. At the same time the painting's warm earth colours and juicy paint strokes reminds us that Victoria was still a colony of late Romantic nineteenth-century English visual culture.
This little exhibition at Mercurio Gallery offers collectors, curators, connoisseurs and students of painting and art history an intimate insight into modernist practice among the few serious artists residing in Victoria a generation or so after Emily Carr's important and still controversial contributions to visual culture in this city.