Tantramar City: Contemporary Painting by Mount Allison Associates
[First published as a catalogue essay for a retrospective exhibition of work by Mount Allison associates called "Atque Ars" at the Owens Art Gallery in 1989. The exhibition was curated by Eyland, Charlotte Townsend Gault and Gemey Kelly.]
The proposition that almost all contemporary North American art schools encourage 'pluralism' is another way of saying that they are homogenous and/or that one art school 's curriculum is just as good as another's. This perception (which should properly be buttressed by statistics) has a great deal to do with the development of a Western system of art education aligned with the West's general Liberal intellectual tradition.
So if this exhibition demonstrates, as we think it does, that art from Mount Allison is as pluralistic and multi-faceted as anywhere else in Canada (setting right in the process the persistent misconceptions of many visiting curators, critics, artists and members of the public), should that news be welcomed by art professionals and educators across the country? What does this proposition imply about the state of fine art if the school which instituted the first Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program in the country has lately come to see itself as one more department within an international fine art caste system.
It has been many years since Mount Allison art moved out of its academic grove of ivy-covered stone buildings and into the wilds of an urban sensibility. There has scarcely been any contemporary art medium or technique left unexplored by Mount Allison associates over the past twenty years. The production of video, sculpture, holography (holography by artist Sidney Dinsmore), painting of every style, performance, sound sculpture (Richard Struan Robertson, for example) and even television (by Bill Langstroth of Don Messer's Jubilee and Anne Murray fame, and Diane Bos, a rock/video artist and photographer) has proliferated against a perceived tradition of autonomous painting developed in the middle years of this century within Mount Allison's ivy-league ambience according to certain standards of excellence in realist painting. (Footnote 1) Christopher Pratt's term 'Atlantic Realists' (Footnote 2) is most useful as a catch-all for the significant coterie of Mount Allison painters associated with a tradition which clings like velcro to Mount Allison's name. However, this group is not really a coherent group but a collection of artistic loners which includes Alex Colville, perhaps Canada's best known artist. (Footnote 3)
To date, no critic has dealt straightforwardly with the media life of Atlantic Realist work. Aside from photography and the movies, which filter in some way all mass-media images, painting is the ultimate mass-media art. Its images are grasped quickly, they are illusionistically reproduced in a number of ways, and amongst all the arts painting is most strongly linked to a prevalent Western myth of the artist as a Romantic struggler who produces unique, valuable objects with auratic power.
Technically, the small-stroke articulation of a Colville painting, the smooth gradation of surface in the work of Christopher Pratt and Mary Pratt, and the dry-brush and /or egg tempera technique of Forrestall, Tolmie, and Hugh MacKenzie and D.P. Brown results most often in a flat, matte, often smallish-scale image which is easily photographed. Often, the image has graphic contrast, and is composed in a way which makes it suitable for reproduction by the half-tone dot of offset printing. These points are worth mentioning, because an ease of assimilation into print is a technical requirement of mass-media fulfilled very well by Atlantic Realist imagery. Sentimentality, nostalgia, banality, and theatricality are also 'technical' requirements of mass-media images, and Atlantic Realism occasionally meets mass-media's agenda of entertainment and diversion more than halfway.
As noted below in comments by Mary Pratt and Ken Tolmie about their years at Mount Allison, the Atlantic Realist era grew out of rural roots. Of importance to the success of Atlantic Realism, however, is its satisfaction of the needs of urban people. Evidence of the Atlantic Realist rural sensibility taking over the big city can be seen in Toronto's Mira Godard Gallery, which represents or has represented most of the important Atlantic Realist artists.
The contemporary Mount Allison scene is now almost exclusively composed of urban artists (sometimes refugees from city life) who address urban issues. The only rural connection for many of these artists is the backdrop of the New Brunswick countryside around Mount Allison University.
With the advent of the Mount Allison art administration of the seventies (directed by Lawren P. Harris, 1946-1975, and then Virgil G. Hammock, 1975 - present) as in the wider art world, the characterization 'excellence' in painting might be said to have been subsumed within the terms 'eclecticism' or 'pluralism'. (Footnote 4) Understandably, perhaps, the current art faculty is ambivalent about making a formal declaration of independence from the Atlantic Realist School, if only because a pluralistic art school should have no interest (if it admires philosophical consistency) in denying any particular painting style.
This regime encouraged (and continues to encourage) an eclecticism not only within painting, but also in and among other media. Before the seventies, the painting department was 'eclectic' within an older realism/abstraction dichotomy in the work and direction of staff like Lawren Harris, who ranged freely among painting styles, and in Alex Colville, who did not promote his own painting style in classes. Later, a spirit of eclecticism was at work in the appointment of faculty like video artist Colin Campbell (1969-1973), abstract painter Harold Feist (1975-1979) and curator Chris Youngs (1973-1976).
As director of the Owens, Youngs was a force along with Barbara Sternberg and Dyana Werden in the creation of what eventually became Sackville's parallel space, Struts Gallery. Like other 'alternative' Canada Council-funded galleries, Struts encourages intermedia work and experimental art.
More recently, the art department at Mount Allison has strengthened its ties with the art community surrounding the Universite´ de Moncton, and this cross-fertilization has made the Sackville/Moncton area an artistic microcosm of Canada's Two Solitudes - except that in New Brunswick, the two artistic solitudes talk to each other, visit each other, and show with each other. This is one reason why Mount Allison has recently become what might be called a 'new' institution. Moncton is only a few kilometers away, and the Moncton/Sackville extended community has existed in its present form only since the first generation of Acadian artists graduated from the Université de Moncton.
Mount Allison has reached beyond the marshes to become 'Tantramar City', a place which admits influences of all kinds, and which, however small, has the character of an urban centre.
At the time of the compilation of this exhibition, we chose painting by current faculty and staff members (slightly expanding our definition of painting to include prints and photographs) including: Virgil Hammock, Rebecca Burke, Tom Henderson, Barrie Szekely, David Bobier, David Silverberg, Thaddeus Holownia, and Dan Steeves. (Footnote 5)
Past Faculty members (who paint) included in the exhibition are Harold Feist, Lawren Harris, Alex Colville and Ted Pulford.
Former students whose work is included as painting are Diane Bos, Sydney Dinsmore, Evergon,Tom Forrestall, Paul Miller, Michael Coyne, Susan Wood, Don Pentz, Roger Savage, Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, D.P. Brown, and Ken Tolmie.
In addition to visiting the Owens Art Gallery, we encourage visitors to see the Alex Colville murals in the Athletic Building and Tweedie Hall, Lawren P. Harris' portrait paintings in Centennial Hall, Tom Henderson's yard (just outside Sackville in Point Debute, this site contains significant past works by Henderson), the Lane Studios, and Struts Gallery. Holownia's Aeolian Harp , a wind sculpture, can be viewed at his home in Jolicure. (Please ask Owens Gallery Staff for assistance in locating outside installations.)
David Bobier (current faculty) - There is a low-tech mechanized humour in prints by David Bobier,one of which is included in this exhibition. This humour also figures in his mechanized sculpture (also included). Machine aesthetics are practiced by several local artists, including Sackville's Terry Graff, who often collaborates with Bobier, and Moncton's Luc A. Charette and Daniel Dugas. Sackville's abandoned manufacturing plants have provided material for the other Sackville artists, including sculptor Dennis Gill.
Diane Bos (1979 graduate) - has been educational co-ordinator at the Power Plant Gallery at Harbourfront in Toronto since 1984. Although she majored in painting and sculpture while at Mount Allison, she became interested in pinhole photography (included in this exhibition). While at Mount Allison , Bos helped create one of the first punk bands on the east coast (called Italian Tv ).
"Most of my music is is inspired by strong visual images," she says.
D.P. Brown (1969 graduate) - a self-portrait from the Owens Art Gallery permanent collection. We have made a suite of self-portraits in this exhibition. A tradition at Mount Allison had graduating students donate a self-portrait to the Owens permanent collection (included are Edward Pulford's, Christopher Pratt's and Ken Tolmie's self-portraits). Several Mount Allison artists were prominently included in the 'Hand Holding the Brush' travelling exhibition, curated by Robert Stacey in the early eighties, which examined Canadian self-portraits.
Rebecca Burke (current faculty) - Art history references abound in the recent large, juicy, expressionistic paintings of Rebecca Burke. Burke made a series of muscle-man cut-out paintings in the early eighties which mocked physical beauty cults. A recent stint in Paris produced paintings about mythology, which led to very recent work (one of these paintings is barely dry off the easel) referring to Picasso's classicizing period (as a starting point). In her large water-carriers painting, Burke seems to be taking herself through another stage in her exploration of classical imagery. Also included in the exhibition is Noah Resting, a slightly earlier foray into biblical mythology, produced during her extended visit to Paris.
Alex Colville (1942 graduate/faculty 1946-63) - Mount Allison's Fine Arts Department still attracts students who are interested in a generalized notion of realist painting, but too much can be made of this (it was out to me some years ago by a Nova Scotia College of Art and Design administrator that incoming NSCAD art students often know only Colville as a contemporary Canadian artist). He has been referred to as the world's leading realist painter (by German critic Heinz Ohff among others), but the literature on Colville is seldom very challenging.To date, David Burnett's retrospective catalogue provides the best overview of his work, as well as summing up very neatly (see Colville, by Burnett, p. 199) more general problems of realist and regional painting.
Colville's The History of Mount Allison, 1948 is permanently installed in Tweedie Hall on campus. The mural Athletes, 1961 is installed in the University's Athletic Centre.
Michael Coyne (graduate 1975) - Coyne takes 'hackneyed' (his term) subjects like woodland scenes and makes brushy paintings in the fine line between 'cliché and non-cliché'. For Coyne, nature is a pivotal idea. Often, he will work from a small photograph which is not blown up mechanically, but by hand. Sometimes he will make a painting out of square fragments of an image in a grid format. In the latter works, each passage is painted separately and the pieces are then put together to form a very large work. In his student days at Mount Allison, Coyne produced much different work, work that could be described as being 'Atlantic Realist'. He is currently chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (part of Memorial University).
Sidney Dinsmore (1980 graduate) - was a co-founder and director of the Interference Hologram Gallery, and is currently curating an exhibition of holographic art called Spring Light at the Museum of Holography in New York. We have reproduced a Dinsmore hologram in this catalogue; however, she cautions that "There is a tremendous volume and a sensuality which cannot transcend a photographic representation [of a hologram]."
Evergon (graduate 1970) - Recently featured in a solo exhibition at the National Gallery, his images are almost exclusively based on references to the history of painting. Included in this exhibition are Evergon's witty and extravagant neo-Baroque homages to Delacroix colour polaroid photographs.
Harold Feist (faculty 1975-79) - Feist's mandala (or spoke or wheel) paintings - works associated with sixties and seventies colour painting - are currently on tour in a major retrospective organized by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Curator Karen Wilken characterizes these 1970's paintings as "...testimonials to his attempt to tread the boundary between rational geometry and unchannelled instinct, even unchanneled emotion." (p.19, 'Harold Feist:Genesis of an Image' catalogue). We include one of Feist's paintings from the Owens collection.
Tom Forrestall (1958 graduate) - Forrestall's use of various shaped frames in his tempera paintings reads as a post-modern display of pure disjuncture - this aspect of his work has never been tackled adequately by the critics. The fluidity and assurance of his watercolours is striking. Forrestall limits his palette to a tight range of subdued colours.
Virgil Hammock (1975-1984, 1987-present, Department of Fine Arts Head) - Hammock once served in the American military in Korea, and these military paintings are quizzically ironic in their sunny portrayals of military men. Hammock relates the neo-primitivist style to Flemish primitives, but one also detects a Maritime Folk influence in these works.
Lawren P. Harris (Art Department Head 1946-1975) - An interesting comparison can be made between Lawren Harris and another contemporary artist, the West German painter Gerhard Richter. Both artists range between the most uncompromising abstract painting and the most convincing photographic realism. Harris' abstract work has a Bauhaus/European sense of scale (much more intimate than, say, American Minimalist abstraction). Examples of his realist portraits of Mount Allison academics may be seen in Mount Allison's Centennial Hall.
Tom Henderson (current faculty) - An Acadian influence may account for the visual alliances among certain of Hermenegilde Chiasson's assemblages and Henderson's work, or Yvon Gallant's painting and Henderson (mutual influences, no doubt). The loud, raucous humour in the Tom Henderson painting included in this exhibition is a relatively recent development in his work. Henderson has also produced formalist sculpture which one can place solidly within a Late Modernist tradition.
Thaddeus Holownia (current faculty and Art Department Head 1984-1987) - Holownia's technically 'perfect' photographs depend for part of their strength on resonances with the academic history of painting (Evergon and Holownia both lead us to think of them as painters) and traditional high-art photographic technique. The dead-tech industrial references in the colour photographs in this exhibition can easily be made to relate to the work of several (see Bobier above) Sackville/Moncton area artists. One of Holownia's photos was taken at the site of the defunct Trenton, Nova Scotia railroad car works. Like Sackville, this small town is a recent a victim of de-industrialisation.
Holownia's Aeolian Harp, a wind sculpture, can be viewed just outside of Sackville at his home in Jolicure.
Paul Miller (1980 graduate) - Miller is a young neo-expressionist painter, who at one time made accomplished, traditional watercolours. He believes that painting is about production - he is very prolific, and his works, usually made in acrylic with collage, are huge. The work in this exhibition has affinities with Anselm Keifer's thickly encrusted painting. Like Rebecca Burke, Miller makes work that fits easily into the international mainstream of recent painting.
Donald Pentz (1966 graduate)- Donald Pentz, who is also a realist painter and illustrator, makes strong black, Motherwell-like abstract paintings, two of which are included in this exhibition. Other Pentz abstract paintings have the look of 'simulacra' abstraction, a recent trend in which abstract painting uses as its referent other abstract painting.
Christopher Pratt (1961 graduate) - Robert Fulford, in a recent catalogue for Pratt's 49th Parallel exhibition in New York, makes a connection between Pratt's work and minimalist sculpture (eg. Donald Judd) - a connection which seems inescapable. We have had the fortunate opportunity to include in this exhibition studies and the finished painting of Demolitions on the South Side, which highlights Pratt's architectural/minimalist aesthetic. Alex Colville also bases his imagery on a careful geometry, which he makes into a kind of oracle out of which a painting emerges. Pratt, however, lets the geometry show in the final work. 'Architectonic' is a word which seems to have been invented to describe Pratt's work.
Mary Pratt (1961 graduate) - Pratt comments on her student years in the late fifties at Mount Allison (Kimber, 1983, CBC interview - see bibliography):
"....all of us painted realistically and I don't know whether it was because we were from small places where we saw things in an immediate and precise way. If you go to a city the effect of the city on your mind is quite different I think than if you live in the country. And you have to deal with particular things over and over again. The big city has a rushing effect on you....You don't have this over and over looking at the same thing again and again and again perhaps that you do in a small place."
Edward Pulford (1947 graduate/ faculty 1949-80) - I disagree with Hartwell Daley, who once (Arts Atlantic, Fall, 1980, p.29) characterized Pulford's relation to the geomorphology of the Atlantic region as '...so different... from the Prairies of his youth'. There is something reminiscent of the prairies in the Tantramar Marshes of Sackville. Except at seaside, no where else in the Maritimes does one sense the raw, physical expanse of nature in quite the same way.
Pulford's watercolours, like those of several of his pupils (eg. Roger Savage and Alice Reed) relate to the English Romantic landscape tradition (he is a regular visitor to Wordsworth's Lake District). True to that tradition, Pulford's work operates somewhere between pre-photographic empirical notation (one thinks of Constable), and (as we read it today) a celebration of a threatened natural environment.
Roger Savage (1963 graduate) - We include a screen-print by Savage, a watercolourist and printmaker who lives on Nova Scotia's South Shore. Like Silverberg and Pulford, Savage ranges geographically far afield, often to tropical climes, to make work. In the travel works of Silverberg and Savage (coincidentally) the palm tree signifies about as far away from the Tantramar Marshes as it is possible to get.
David Silverberg (current faculty) - Travelogue prints by David Silverberg show a technical handling inspired by art history's drawing masters. Silverberg is exclusively a printmaker who has nurtured two generations of students (eg. Suezan Aikins) in this hermetic art.
Dan Steeves (1981 graduate) - Painter and printmaker Dan Steeves, who works as a technician in the Art Department's printmaking studio, made the print we include in this exhibition out of the personal trauma of his child's surgery Apokatallassei, (1987). I read (perhaps ambitiously) in this empty crib a metaphorical summing up of the withering position of the Romantic individual as artist in the works of Atlantic Realism.
Barrie Szekely (1988-89 faculty) - A faculty replacement during a sabbatical leave, Szekely, who is said to have had an enormously positive influence on students, makes 'floating signifier' (my term) paintings which look like semiotic puzzles: a branch here, a patch of a colour there...The work has a 'new image' look, as if figurative bits have wandered onto the canvas in hopes of at some future date composing themselves into a landscape of some sort.
Ken Tolmie (1962 graduate) - Commenting on the rural backgrounds of the Atlantic Realist painters in 1983, (on the CBC - see bibliography) Tolmie said ".....The mechanics simply made this occur at that particular time. And they were all from conservative set-ups. Tom Forrestall from the rural part of the Valley and from Dartmouth...How the hell are you going to get (an) abstractionist out of situations like that(?)....It would be natural to be a realist, just as it was natural for Colville himself to choose to be a realist having lived most of his life in the Maritimes.'
His dry-brush watercolours of the recently completed Bridgetown Series, documented the people of a small Nova Scotia town, Tolmie recently moved to Toronto, where he is pursuing his documentary painting in Cabbagetown. We include a self-portrait from the Owens permanent collection.
Susan Wood (1976 graduate) -"Devil's Purse is a colloquial term for the empty egg case of the skate, often found on beaches tangled amongst seaweed....These works, while exploring the imagery of menstruation, incubation, and reproduction, are in no way a celebration of fecundity..." (Vita Plume, Vanguard, Nov. 1987, p.40). Woods' Devil's Purse series is evidence of drawing abilities developed during her student days through Mount Allison's emphasis on basic drawing skills.
A resident of St. John's, Newfoundland, Wood (despite Nova Scotian roots) should be seen as a solidly Newfoundland artist. One thinks of Pam Hall and Marlene Creates as having fellow sensibilities among Woods' colleagues in Newfoundland. They share an interest in work which communicates the natural environment's weather-beaten edge. Some of Wood's work has the blood-and- soil feeling of the work of Joseph Beuys.
1. Perhaps the focus on 'excellence' at Mount Allison is best exemplified by the 1961 Mount Allison Faculty Association's 'committee on excellence', chaired by Alex Colville see Reid, Mount Allison University: A History II: 1914-1963 Vol. II 1914-1963, pp 336-337).
2. Gemey Kelly's historical component of the exhibition is hung separately from the contemporary work. We have hung the contemporary portion of exhibition according to the shapes and forms and juxtapositions stimulated by the work in the gallery spaces at the Owens.
3. There are realist painters among Mount Allison associates who do not quite fit into the category for various reasons, for example, E. Nancy Stevens, Hugh MacKenzie, Alice Reed, and others - artists who make representational, often narrative or anecdotal paintings in oil, watercolour, acrylic and egg tempera.
Most associates of Mount Allison who paint have not been overly influenced by Alex Colville, who left the painting Faculty in 1963.
4. Interestingly, 'pluralism', has an official expression in Canada in the Federal Government's 'multiculturalism' policy.
5. 'Painting' also includes the graphic art in this exhibition by David Bobier, David Silverberg, Roger Savage, Dan Steeves, Lawren Harris, and Alex Colville. (Among these artists, only Silverberg is exclusively a printmaker).
The photographs of Evergon, Dinsmore and Holownia depend for at least some of their strength on references to the history of painting.
Magazines consulted include Arts Atlantic, Canadian Art, Parallelogramme and Vanguard
Bringhurst, Robert (and others), editors. "Visions, Contemporary Art in Canada", Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1983
Burnett, David. "Colville", Toronto:Art Gallery of Ontario and McClelland & Stewart, 1983
Burnett, David and Marilyn Schiff. "Contemporary Canadian Art", Edmonton: Hurtig; Toronto: with the Art Gallery of Ontario, 1983
Fulford, Robert. "Recent Paintings Christopher Pratt", New York: 49th Parallel, 1988
Kimber, Steven and Sheila Jones. transcript of an unpublished CBC interview "The realists of Mount Allison: time, chance and circumstance" with several Mount Allison Atlantic Realists, including Pulford, Colville, the Pratts, Forrestall, Tolmie: Halifax, 1983
Reid, John G. "Mount Allison University, Vol. II: 1914-1963", Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984
Silcox, David P. "Christopher Pratt", Toronto: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1983
Wilkin, Karen. "Harold Feist:Genesis of an Image", Kingston: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 1988