Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.
"Watercolour (Trabzon, Turkey - Aqaba, Jordan)"
Francis Alÿs, "Watercolour (Trabzon, Turkey - Aqaba, Jordan)," 2010, video, 1:19 min.
Walter Phillips Gallery, The Banff Centre
July 13 to Sept. 15, 2013
By Mary-Beth Laviolette
A clever riff on the art term, en plein air, or the making of art in the open air, Pleinairism is not likely to lead anyone imaginatively down the proverbial forest path. Nor, for that matter, up a mountain trail. A group exhibition by Canadian and international artists who present contemporary art related to the plein-air tradition, Pleinairism, while at times engaging due to the diversity of artistic approaches, also underwhelms.
Despite the wide range of media, including drawing, watercolour, print, painting, text, video, film, performance and photography, the exhibition is visually thin. In contrast to the plein-air tradition, with its rich and textured response to nature through the genre of landscape painting, many works here seem largely tied up in their conceptual processes. Or, their content takes the viewer in other directions, as with audio recordings by Janet Cardiff, including a 2012 work with George Bures Miller. Both pieces are rich with the sounds of nature, but their subject matter is much broader than the plein-air.
As to what the plein-air tradition represented locally in the first half of the 20th century one example is Walter J. Phillips, who spent many summers teaching at what was then known as the Banff School of Fine Arts. Three watercolours by Phillips, a contemporary of the Group of Seven, are included in Pleinairism, curated by Kitty Scott. What makes this selection bold – and even brave – is that, until now, Phillips’ art has never been displayed in the gallery that bears his name. It’s always been a curious omission, but one that speaks volumes about the gallery’s ongoing disconnect with the artistic production of this region, whether historic or contemporary.
Pleinairism proposes an expanded view of landscape, exploring the idea of what is possible when contemporary artists venture into the wilderness, into nature, or simply go outside. Their responses are diverse and, at times, surprising. Memorable is Peter Fischli and the late David Weiss’ quirky Rat and Bear film; Francis Alÿs’ conceptually witty video, Watercolour (Trabzon, Turkey – Aqaba, Jordan); and Raymond Boisjoly’s hazy sun-print images of gas stations on First Nations’ reserves.
But at the heart of the plein-air tradition is the physical (outdoor) environment as subject. Looking at a Phillips watercolour, there’s no doubt as to the subject. In Pleinairism, the subject largely becomes a setting or a backdrop: a stage upon which certain actions or processes are enacted for other reasons. In only the atmospheric works of Silke Otto-Knapp and Andreas Siqueland did I sense a preoccupation with the environment, or whatever one wishes to call it. Present in both is a desire to interpret or connect with what is experienced outdoors, a task that continues to inspire the artistic imagination.