Artist Robert Michener
Artist Robert Michener. PHOTO: Mark Mushet.
SHADES OF GREEN
With a new show at Ian Tan Gallery, painter Robert Michener rakes over 40 idyllic years.
BY: Fiona Morrow
The suburban community made up of large executive homes with triple garages and manicured lawns was not what I was expecting. But despite the middle-class trappings all around, when I turned into the driveway of Robert Michener’s home I found a simple, self-built dwelling of unpainted cedar in tall, vertical planks. From the large window of his garden studio, Michener still looks out on trees, but there’s no escaping that what he bought for $62,000 as an acre of land in the midst of farm country some 20 years ago has been enveloped by the persistent development sprawl of South Surrey, B.C.
Michener turned 75 this year and has been painting for five decades. Come October, he will be the subject of a retrospective at Ian Tan Gallery in Vancouver. “It’s not really a retrospective,” he explains. “There will only be about 25 paintings and everything is for sale. It’s more ‘works from the artist’s collection’.”
He’s showing me — with the help of a friend and former student — some of that collection. The works go back as far as the 1960s, when Michener was turning from the abstract expressionism of his college years into what he describes as “an abstract figurative art”. There are a few examples of his best-known work — the farm series. Painted mostly during the 1980s, they hark back to a time when working the land was a family affair, and the landscape was dotted with smallholdings, red barns and hedgerows.
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"Gentle On My Mind"
Robert Michener, "Gentle On My Mind," oil on linen, 1970, 88" X 76".
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"Spring Plowing II"
Robert Michener, "Spring Plowing II," oil on linen, 1991, 51" X 45".
Pleasing, almost quaint, these paintings were regarded as folk art by some, Michener recalls with impatience. After the farm series, he began painting gorges — highly stylized, but still very serene images of high cliffs and birds, with lone miniature anglers in their midst.
“Lots of people think the gorges are my best work,” he notes. “But they certainly haven’t found a market at all.”
Many decisions about which works will be included in the show are still to be made — the artist and the gallery owner have their differences on this. Idyll II(2008) is a case in point. It features a glade edged with trees and cliffs, with three naked figures lying in the grass. “This is a painting I’m very happy with,” he says. “Ian doesn’t want to show it. He likes things with impact.” Michener dismisses the idea of impact.
When Michener looks at the painting, he sees the natural next step in his journey as an artist. He’s moving toward “a more gentle kind of painting, trying to posit another way of living in the world.”
He was born in the small town of Preston, Minnesota and grew up loving the environment. The bike rides after school, the fishing and squirrel hunting. The land — naturally cut into channels bordered by limestone cliffs — imprinted itself deep into his consciousness. The small town attitudes were less easy to bear and he left for university in St. Paul to study pre-law, but soon found himself studying drawing, then painting and sculpture.
He got engaged, and the girl promptly left to study in Europe, so he and a friend decided to hitchhike across the Middle East and Europe for six months. “I looked at an awful lot of art” he recalls. “And I came back thinking there was no way I’d ever be able to do what those artists could do.” And the girl? “Jilted me.”
After two years in the army, he went back to get his Masters at the University of Minnesota. One of the first people he met was to become his mentor, Walter Quirt — a name that passes Michener’s lips often. Quirt was a member of the Works Progress Administration and a Marxist abstract expressionist. “He had very strong opinions and a very strong point of view,” says his student.
Robert Michener, "Fly Fishing Mid-May" (1996)
By the time he had his graduate degree, Michener was married and, after five years’ teaching university, the couple headed to London for a year with their two adopted toddlers. “This was a critical time for me,” he notes. “Not for the painting, which I don’t think went very well, but because it was the first time I had the opportunity to see great art on a regular basis.”
It wasn’t until he moved to Vancouver in 1973 to take up a position at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), that his work received any attention. He was 40 when he had his first commercial show. “Vancouver was a cultural backwater, which was good for me,” he says. “Because I was doing landscapes, they vaguely connected me to the Group of Seven. People bought my paintings because they weren’t abstractions and yet they weren’t realistic.”
Things were less rosy at work where his wife, the now-noted ceramicist Sally Michener, was also employed. He shared a department with three minimal abstractionists. “The spray booth was in constant use, but there were no drawing classes. There wasn’t even an easel.” His marriage broke up — Sally was the Dean and his boss “and much more famous than me” — and he married one of his students, the painter Ann Nelson. They just celebrated 25 years together.
Next to Idyll II in his studio, Michener has pulled out a large painting from the 1960s. Though the brush strokes are broader and the style less harnessed in the earlier work, the image is again one of naked figures in a bucolic landscape. “I think they’re in direct connection,” he says of the two works. “I’ve always had a moral compass in my art — I felt that you should point a way to something better. That art should show us not just what we feel, but the possibility of feeling differently.”
He’s hoping that the Ian Tan show will bring people to appreciate the work, but he says he’s not optimistic. “It’s hard when you don’t receive any respect or notice — and I’ve received very little,” he proffers matter-of-factly. “But then I’ve never painted in accordance with any fashion — and often I’ve worked in direct opposition to it.”
Robert Michener’s solo exhibition is on at Ian Tan Gallery, Vancouver October 23 to November 18, 2010.