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Collection of Angus and Jean Bruneau.
"Salmon on Saran"
Mary Pratt, "Salmon on Saran," 1974, oil on Masonite, 18” x 30”.
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The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery Collection, Memorial University of Newfoundland Collection.
Mary Pratt, "Eviscerated Chickens," 1971, oil on Masonite, 14” x 18”.
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Collection of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Ned Pratt.
Mary Pratt, "Jelly Shelf," 1999, oil on canvas, 22” x 28”.
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Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax.
Mary Pratt, "Sunday Dinner," 1996, oil on canvas, 36" x 48".
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Collection of Mary Pratt.
Mary Pratt, "Supper Table," 1969, oil on canvas, 24'' x 36''.
MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina
May 17 to August 24, 2014
By Sky Goodden
Mary Pratt occupies a unique and agitating position within the still-forming canon of Canadian contemporary art. Her 50-year career as a photorealist painter is widely celebrated, and her achievements as a postwar, East Coast, female artist are all the more distinguished for the various “unlikelihoods” she’s overcome. She’ll tell you these very distinctions have provided her the “stuff of life,” in fact. But because categorical imperatives continue to circle the artist, and fail to land, the nagging issue of how to position Pratt persists. She remains invitingly implacable.
Some of this resistance is born in the work itself. Superficially, Pratt frames a domesticated life. However her paintings swell with dark matter. Touching on this in the catalogue, critic Sarah Milroy writes, “sifting through the images, I notice how often her work depicts objects wrapped or unwrapped, or things being opened up.” Milroy enumerates the fish fillets spilled out over their peel of foil; the wrinkled nightdress hanging loose around taut flesh (the girl is “naked, not nude”); a flayed moose carcass trussed to the back of a truck. Most searing, and perhaps most complicating, is Pratt’s depiction of six broken eggshells sitting in their open cardboard box. She realized only after the picture’s completion that it was likely informed by the miscarriage of her full-term son, and the death of his day-old twin. She still appears surprised by this simple revelation.
Hardened sorrows can be attributed to a certain East Coast mentality, of course, but Pratt – perhaps despite herself – has long managed to present her privations under the hard light of day. For instance, a repeated focus on Donna – her longtime model, often photographed by her first husband, painter Christopher Pratt – is typically rendered without emotion. But Pratt’s singular image of her daughter Barby, who sits by a window on her wedding day in a homemade dress, disturbs this cool touch. You can count the mottles on her nervous cheek. Her eyes betray a heart-rending apprehension. It’s a profoundly sad picture, and Pratt’s finest. Despite her subject moving forward, the picture circles loss.
An important survey of Pratt’s origins, mastery and chief subjects, this show features her best-achieved and most-patterned subjects (colour-saturated still lifes, challenging nudes and coolly regarded landscapes). It also suggests a momentum that exaggerates the painter’s realization of hard truths. At both the MacKenzie and McMichael iterations, the directing hand (that of emerging curator Mireille Eagan and co-curators Caroline Stone and Sarah Fillmore) leaves a heavy imprint. Pratt’s many still lifes, for instance, suffer from a salon-style hang, both cloistered and stacked (at the McMichael they were even cordoned off, protected against the close inspection the work clearly invites, while a neighbouring room presented only a scant few canvases that featured Christmas fires and laundry burning on the line).
It isn’t clear to me that Pratt distinguishes between the immobility of her still-life subjects and the torridness of these flames. Each is captured and contained, after all, by her careful brush and frame. With the exception of Barby in the Dress She Made for Herself (1986), Pratt’s subject stays the same: the stuff of life is deeply felt, she says, and pictured plain.