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"Nights with Georgia"
Landon Mackenzie, "Nights with Georgia," 2010-11, acrylic on linen, 82 ½ “ x 114 “ (210 x 290 cm). PHOTO: Scott Massey.
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"Houbart’s Hope (Yellow) Crimson Lake"
Landon Mackenzie, "Houbart’s Hope (Yellow) Crimson Lake," 2001-4, synthetic polymer and appliqués on linen, 90” x 123” (228.6 x 312.4 cm).
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Pierre Coupey, "Screen I," 2009-10, oil on canvas over panel, (in four sections) overall size 36” x 144” (91.4 x 365.7 cm) .
THE POINT IS
Kelowna Art Gallery
August 20 - October 30, 2011
By Portia Priegert
There’s a certain audacity in titling a painting exhibition The Point Is, as curator Liz Wylie does at the Kelowna Art Gallery. It almost begs the question “What is the point?” – a freighted avenue of inquiry for a mercurial discipline whose contemporary relevance has been questioned to the point of declaring its death. But as Wylie notes in the catalogue essay, a point can be seen not only as an end, but also as a beginning and as a building block. It is in this latter sense that her curatorial premise is rooted, for she proposes to explore the “charged zone” of interface between abstraction and representation, “a place of latent energy, a nexus, as with a magnetic pole, around which a field of energy may swirl.” She argues that abstraction and representation are not as far removed as some would posit and that dialogues can, and do, exist between formal concerns and what is seen or sensed in the real world.
To illustrate her thesis, Wylie assembles16 paintings by five artists – Pierre Coupey, Landon Mackenzie, Martin Pearce, Bernadette Phan and Bryan Ryley – all based in British Columbia with the exception of Pearce, who lives in Ontario. Perhaps the clearest manifestation is offered by Mackenzie, who presents two large-scale paintings,Houbart’s Hope (Yellow) Crimson Lake, which relates to the early mapping of Canada, and a more recent work,Nights with Georgia, which concerns itself with brain function. The former, in particular, with its deft use of map-making symbols within larger pools and washes of color, nods to representational power without overwhelming abstraction’s more subtle concerns.
Also notable is Coupey’s piece, Screen I, an oil in four linear panels, including two with scrawled, text-like marks that resist legibility, and two that revel in a more painterly ground. The work ably demonstrates Coupey’s interest in the representation of embodied experience and emotional states with an expressiveness that, as Wylie observes, is not sloppy or maudlin.
The other three artists have a more ephemeral relationship to representation. Pearce’s canvases are subtle tonal studies in shades of grey, richly worked brooding surfaces that engage with contrary forces of obfuscation and revelation, while remaining largely unintelligible from a representational standpoint. Ryley’s large squeegee paintings include recognizable collage elements, but reside mostly within the language of abstraction, despite his working method of linking painterly gesture to the random events of daily life. For her part, Phan creates meditative canvases in which an almost pixilated abstraction based in formal experimentation starts to resemble impressionistic studies of sky and water.
Wylie asserts that these approaches represent “a wholly new territory of exploration and of expressive and intellectual possibility.” That may be an overstatement. Arguably, apart from a minority of rigid formalists, abstraction has long been influenced – knowingly and unknowingly, in ways both subtle and profound – by the subjectivities, experiences and strategies of its practitioners.
Clearly, the work in this exhibition is sincere and serious. But there is also a certain narrowness in the exhibition’s range – its magnetic pole is tilted to abstraction influenced by representational concerns, rather than the reverse or even a balanced split between the two. This makes the exhibition feel safe. Pleasurable, yes, but perhaps a broader and riskier frame – proclaiming not what the point is, but instead, what the points are – might have yielded a more complex discourse and a stronger exhibition.