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Spring 2009 cover
Spring 2009 cover
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"Just at Dusk"
Sylvain Voyer, "Just at Dusk," acrylic on Masonite, 1990, 16" X 7".
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Sylvain Voyer, "Crowsnest Pass," acrylic on canvas, 2006, 48" X 24".
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"Museum of Modern Art"
Sylvain Voyer, Museum of Modern Art, 1979, mixed media.
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Sylvain Voyer, "Monarca Swirl," acrylic on Masonite, 9" X 10"
Step into this prairie painter's endless horizons in a five-decade survey show at the Art Gallery of Alberta.
BY: Mary-Beth Laviollete
He has been called the “canola and sky king” for his eye-catching landscapes of vivid canola fields in full bloom and parkland forests of trembling aspen. But, as a first-time survey reveals, Sylvain Voyer’s practice is as broad as the North Saskatchewan he knows so well. Based in Edmonton for most of his life, the city’s Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), is the site of a major exhibition this spring spanning nearly 50 years. That’s plenty of time for an artist to create a substantial body of work but, in Voyer’s case, make that plural — as in bodies of work. And make it generational — as in that storm of social and artistic change Voyer, experienced and responded to as a young artist in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now at 70, his home has shifted south to the rolling foothills around Claresholm, between Lethbridge and Calgary. But there is still something of the radical in his recent paintings, featuring the delicate aerials of Mexico’s monarch butterflies. Painstakingly depicted from different perspectives, no butterfly is alike. These works amaze Marcus Miller, the curator of the AGA show. “All of those hundreds of butterflies on the canvas become quite abstract after you look at them for awhile.” Observed in the highlands of Mexico, these transcontinental travellers are a skyward evocation of what has made Voyer as much a painter of light, and all that is ephemeral, as of the land around him.
From Mexico too, where the artist and his wife, Jean, have spent many winters exploring that country’s ecological and cultural heritage, are his pictures of imposing Mayan ruins. Their large, impressive frames are unique to these paintings, some elaborately carved with Mexican patterns, worry dolls and other decorative features. Besides enriching the paintings’ content, Voyer likes to point out that the frames allude to the Symbolists and Paul Gauguin who, a century ago, constructed special frames for their own paintings.
The survey of 80 works includes Pop-inspired paintings and op-art abstractions of the 1960s, the conceptual Art Recycling Depot — where the artist altered dozens of mass-produced art posters into mixed media works — and the striking photographic illusions of Mount Voyer. Chiselled from a 16" block of gypsum, this faux mountain and surreal black and white photographs, along with the paint-can model of New York’s Guggenheim Museum — from the sculptural installation, Great Galleries of the World — show the artist as not only an inspired explorer of foreign places, but also a student of many forms of modern and contemporary art.
Voyer took his influences public, co-founding Edmonton’s first artist-run centre, Latitude 53 in 1973 — in a decade where, like wildfire, the whole concept of establishing a place for different types art not likely to make it inside the doors of a commercial gallery, let-alone a well-established public gallery, took off in Canada. He started the gallery with a former classmate from Calgary’s Alberta College of Art, painter, photographer and printmaker Harry Savage. Call their association a friendship, a partnership (at times), and, says Savage, a two-way mentorship.
Both raised in Edmonton, interested in their roots — with a lot of time spent together outdoors painting the varied Alberta landscape — Voyer and Savage shared artistic ambitions, and tended to criss-cross one another, including an important period where both made hand-pulled prints. Their work often addressed the social and political issues of the day: consumerism, television, degradation of the environment and events like the Vietnam war.
Voyer and Savage were also part of a developing community of trained artists in the 1960s determined to make art a full-time profession. “Edmonton was a very open place at the time,” Voyer recalls. He names other painters he knew like Douglas Haynes, Les Graff, Norman Yates, Jack Taylor and Ihor Dmytruk. “There were very few lines drawn between being an abstract painter, a landscape artist or anything else. You were an artist.”
For the Toronto-based writer John Geiger, who, as a younger kid, remembers seeing the artist a few times in an Edmonton store with a black light room, Voyer represents what an artist should be. Excellent technique but intelligent about the work. Geiger owns a couple of the artist’s TV Series lithographs as well as a 1968 collage by Harry Savage called Turned Off. Although stylistically different, the writer thinks the two artists were “pretty brave doing what they were doing in Edmonton…..they opened the door to some interesting ideas. As [Brion] Gysin might have put it, let the mice in. I think they gave each other courage.”
Geiger is the author of a biography about the innovative, although not well-known, multimedia artist, sound poet and novelist Brion Gysin, who was raised in Edmonton but spent most of his life in Morocco and Paris. Gysin was long gone by the time Voyer was around, but Geiger was surprised to discover that both artists grew up in the same neighbourhood. “As I’ve said, there must have been something in the water.”
Geiger contributes an essay to the AGA’s exhibition, marking the first time a publication about Voyer’s artwork has been produced. It’s something curator Marcus Miller agrees is long overdue. “There has been lots of journalistic coverage of his art but there is a need for some reflective and critical writing.” It is Miller’s task to tease out the many threads of Voyer’s practice, which he describes as complex, playful and challenging. He acknowledges that, in the last couple of decades, not a lot of national attention has been paid to living artists like Voyer, who made a strong commitment to reflecting their place.
Voyer has been quoted as saying that he appropriates the sky, the canola fields and the fall trees as part of an identity, and it’s in the more regional corners of Alberta where Voyer has subsequently made his most lasting contribution. There are two branches of artwork involved: the dozens of 5 x 7 acrylics of old buildings and historic sites in Edmonton, that he fondly calls his “jewels”, and the much larger-scale landscapes, where as many as 15 coats of white base paint give his skies and canola fields a clean, crisp, radiance. He says his aim is to recapture those initial first impressions while avoiding exaggeration.
Compositionally too, he looks for a challenge by often taking an unconventional approach to the perspective. Fields tilt upward and hills roll downward. Milller, who has become intrigued with these odd perspectives, sums it this way. “Sylvain is kind of a dreamer, he is often looking up, up at the sky, up at those butterflies.”
The short-grass environment that now surrounds Voyer is very different from the parkland and the more northern reaches of Alberta. There are new challenges and discoveries to be made. In this regard, he likes to quote Michelangelo. “You paint with your brain, not with your hands.”
Down the highway from where the laid-back artist and Jean have settled, is the historic town of Fort Mcleod, the birthplace of Joni Mitchell. He considers the singer an influence because of what she sings about and how she lives her life. “In some ways she is a regionalist, and that’s where I see myself, as a populist and a regionalist.” All done, he says, because while he has not tackled the industrialized side of southwestern Alberta, its feedlots, wind turbines, dams and gas-fields, people “have to start loving the landscape more.”
The Art Gallery of Alberta presents Sylvain Voyer January 16 to March 22, and Edmonton’s Douglas Udell Gallery will also open a show of Voyer works on January 17, 2009.