GREG EDMONSON, Layers of Time
By Jennifer MacLeod
Imagine standing a short distance back from a grassy hillside where a few trees stand and the horizon stretches to either side of your span of vision. Imagine being still, and watching this single earthly vista as years - thousands of years - pass.
Greg Edmonson's large landscapes take you to that vantage point. As you watch, light transforms into darkness. Trees grow and fall. Lakes form and disappear. Boulders emerge and are swept away. Shadows crawl. Earth's undulations rise and subside.
"My favourite books are ones about geology and the history of the earth," says Edmonson, who refers to his work as archaeological painting. His paintings are landscapes through time, rendered as layers of paint and varnish, and representative of the stratification of history and memory.
Born and raised in Calgary, Edmonson has been painting professionally for close to 20 years. In the last decade, his work has moved through portraits to fragmented portraits, landscapes to fragmented landscapes. In all of his work, images are veiled in shadow, emerging into light like fossils swept free of earth by an archaeologist's brush.
"My earlier portraits and landscapes were foggy, and they evolved into being more clear and sculptural," says Edmonson. "I have gone back and forth over the years. Sometimes within months, I move toward greater clarity. That's usually when I get bored." Much of his career, says Edmonson, has been about finding that balance between reality and imagination; the balance between clarity or accessibility on the one hand, and vagueness and unfamiliarity on the other hand.
"I think of my landscapes as inkblots for the imagination," says the painter. Parts of the image, like parts of our individual memories, and the collective memory of humankind, are lost behind the shadows. That's where the archaeological mysteries lie - in the buried layers of paint and time. "The shadows allow us to use our imaginations."
Edmonson begins his pieces by burying the canvas under many layers of white paint, creating the texture that allows him to manipulate his brushes the way he wants. Next he builds the horizon, the trees, and the general composition by building up layers of paint. He then starts removing paint to arrive at the various elements such as a shadowy lake or trees - similar, he says, to the pattern of growth and erosion that happens on earth.
Some of Edmonson's most recognizable works were created during the early to mid-1990s as part of his Russian series. In response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall, and propelled by an exploration into his own ancestry, Edmonson focused primarily on large-scale portraiture. The figures were imaginary, based on old photographs from Russia from which Edmonson created expressive, haunting faces. In these rich monochromatic images, the faces appeared to be slowly emerging from shadows, existing as abstractions of light and dark.
"Edmonson's use of shadows metaphorically suggests the fragmentary nature of history and memory - parts hidden from view, others slowly emerging from which we can begin to formulate an understanding of the whole," says artist and writer Kay Burns in an article from the Medicine Hat Museum & Gallery show catalogue for a December 2000 exhibition entitled Persistence of Memory. "The faces exist in time as human representation of a perpetual transitional state between light and dark, between reality and fiction, between history and memory."
Edmonson moved into landscapes in the latter 1990s. The scenes, like the faces, are imaginary. But while the existence of human figures in the earlier portraits implied a human story, "the landscapes provide a blank slate for the imagination," he says. By removing the faces, he separated us, the viewers, from the human connection in his paintings, causing us to project ourselves into the landscape instead and thus into the hidden regions of our shared earthly past and distant memories. "Greg Edmonson's fractured landscapes show traces of memory that linger as layers within the spaces of our mind," writes Anne Severson in a review of the June/July 2000 exhibition at Newzones Gallery entitled Greg Edmonson: Vestige. The large scale of the canvases helps draw us in, so we lose ourselves in the space.
The addition of the grid enhances the illusion of time and space, mimicking the fragmentary images that we see as we move our eyes across a scene. Some-times, the blocks contain smaller landscapes within the larger image. In others, the grid seems to pixellate the landscape, like looking through a window screen. In either case, the fragmentation acts as visual interruption, an illusory veil placed over the imaginary settings beyond.
Most of Edmonson's work has been rendered in deep olive tones blending to black. He is now beginning to introduce hints of colour, particularly variations of a single colour to enhance the illusion of light. "I'm also thinking about the human figure again," he says. He speaks, tentatively, about introducing the human form not in a literal way, but as an ambiguous part of the landscape. As the viewers, it remains for us to allow time to pass, and to wait and see what emerges next from the strokes of Greg Edmonson's archaeological brush.
A show of Greg Edmonson's work is scheduled for September, 2002, at Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art.