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Robert Genn, "Whistler Pond," November, 1995, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 34 inches.
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"Dare Beach on the West Coast Trail II"
Robert Genn, "Dare Beach on the West Coast Trail II," 2001, acrylic on canvas, no dimensions available.
ROBERT GENN, 20 Years of Painting the Canadian Landscape
Surrey Art Gallery, Surrey, BC
Apr 15 — June 18, 2006
By Ann Rosenberg
The paintings in Surrey artist Robert Genn's 20-year retrospective exhibition are quiet of surface, impeccably composed, and suffused with gentle, carefully considered light. In his exhibition notes, Surrey Art Gallery assistant curator Brian Foreman states that a landscape by Genn is typically a distillation of details culled from many on-the-spot documentary photos and sketches. It's not until days or months after recording a site that, in his studio, Genn makes a decision to create a fully finished painting.
Genn's paintings have found pride of place in many private and public collections not just because they are an easy fit — the canvases are perfectly sized for a home or small reception area — but because their representational style is so sincere and well-studied. His philosophical commitment to plein air painting strikes an accord with many Canadians who love to pay respect to nature by visiting it alone or, as Genn does, with his family and dogs, a camera and sometimes a sketch pad in hand. This method of producing a painting is a time-honored practice in the Canadian art lexicon, made familiar by the Group of Seven who designated the landscape as the pre-eminent Canadian subject in the early twentieth century. The styles of these artists along with other, less familiar Genn favourites, such as John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, have all fed into the artist's sensibility; however, nowhere is the "borrowing" direct or obvious.
Delivered without visible brushwork or traces of decorative, art nouveau design, Whistler Pond (1995) nevertheless appears like an amalgam of paintings by Tom Tomson transported from Ontario to British Columbia. This canvas could depict any site in the nation where a quiet moment in the pine woods is enlivened by a small shrub with leaves aflame. No similar Group of Seven precedents come to mind regarding Dare Beach on the West Coast Trail (2001), which is quintessentially a scene from the artist's home province. The fore- and middle-ground beach stones are forthrightly three-dimensional, meticulously rendered in tones of grey and the pale yellows of an emerging morning sun. The background, in contrast, is a two-dimensional scrim of rocks and trees; a theatrical curtain mirroring the experience of looking at an island on a foggy seaside morning.
I first learned of Genn through a workshop an artist friend of mine attended. She was impressed by his willingness to share his abundant technical knowledge about all aspects of painting and especially about management of the business side of a successful art career. Genn has developed a profile in the wider arts community (especially among more traditional painters) through such classes and, more recently, via his website — www.painterskeys.com — a popular twice-weekly email letter subscribed to by 150,000 members. In his workshops he advises artists to take charge of their own marketing and public profile, saying no one else will do it for them, and he admonishes them to "go to your room and paint" immediately after breakfast.
Genn has proven the efficacy of his own advice. The paintings on display at the Surrey Art Gallery are developed out of a long and deservedly self-assured practice. At seventy years of age this year, Genn describes himself as a still-learning painter for whom the "reworking and synthesizing and the very process of art-making" is a constant pleasure and challenge. Like Winston Churchill, he believes that the way to be happy is to find "a task that requires the sort of perfection that is impossible to achieve" — a struggle that is not apparent in the polished paintings we see here.