1 of 2
Neil McClelland, "Cracked," Oil on canvas, 30” x 48”, 2009-2010.
2 of 2
"A Hundred Yellow Mornings"
Neil McClelland, "A Hundred Yellow Mornings," Oil on canvas, 30” x 48”, 2009-2010.
NEIL MCCLELLAND, Smile As You Go By
Harcourt House Arts Centre, Edmonton
Oct 14 - Nov 13, 2010
By Ross Bradley
At first glance, it could be a nostalgic walk down memory lane; for many people who grew up in the fifties and sixties, it will indeed bring back memories of a much less complicated time when kids read comic books instead of texting while mom prepared dinner on the classic Coleman camp stove. The underlying theme of Neil McClelland's exhibition,Smile As you Go By is based on his youth in the picturesque Gatineau Hills on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Montreal. Family is obviously an important part of this story but on closer inspection, is not necessarily the primary focus on the show. (Visit the artist's blog - neilmclelland.blogspot.com - to follow more of the narrative behind the exhibition.)
McClelland, who moved to Alberta in 1997, has spent the last year as artist-in-residence at Harcourt House Arts Centre, an artist-run gallery and studio facility near downtown Edmonton. As part of his residency, he is provided free studio space and the opportunity for a solo exhibition.
In his introduction, he writes: "This show is, in a way, all about me. But not just about me. The exhibition brings together a new series of larger paintings based on family slides and an earlier, but expanded installation in which I appropriated my mother’s wall of family photographs by creating photo-sized paintings on Mylar. My term as artist-in-residence has provided me the opportunity to explore further the connection between art and personal narrative.”
Fortunately, this exploration puts the emphasis on the “art.” Even in the salon-style family photo gallery where the artist superimposed Mylar sheets over the original photos and reinterpreted the images as small oil paintings, there are some striking portraits and genre scenes. An image of dad on his Skidoo flying out of the picture plane demonstrates the often lost potential of the family photograph as a relevant art form.
On the larger canvases, McClelland imposes his own aesthetic on the source photographs. Based on digitalized slides of family camping vacations, he has reduced his palette to a minimum so as to capture the visual effect of the source material. He also incorporates the black cropping marks from the original images which impose an interesting, if not always effective, formalist element. Much more effective is the artist’s application of paint which, although relatively flat, captures both the atmospheric conditions as well as the effects of age on the photographs and the memory of the artist.
The title of the exhibition - and the title work - comes from a slide of a Supertest community service station with a sign in the window which reads, “If you can’t stop, smile as you go by.” This is one of the more direct narratives which sets the tone for the collection but does not push the creative potential as much as we see in a work like A Hundred Yellow Mornings, where the artist as youthful protagonist of the series appears as winged Cupid or Mercury, wings created by the image of the camp chair behind him. Similarly, the portrait Drift combines the figure emerging from the left edge of the canvas into a misty landscape more reminiscent of formalist, colour field paintings.
Throughout the collection, there is an interesting combination of such compositional elements and genre subjects reminiscent of impressionist painters like Degas and Renoir, with figures cut off by the black frames or simply by the edge of the canvas. The straight landscape pieces also employ this aesthetic with brushwork and palette evoking the atmosphere and light of eastern Canada in contrast to the open skies of the prairies. Although there is certainly sentimentality to some of the work, this show offers much more than just a ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’