(Marlene Creates Landworks 1979-1991 was organized by Patricia Grattan for the Art Gallery, Memorial University of Newfoundland, with a catalogue essay by Susan Gibson Garvey. The exhibition travelled to Carleton University, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum, and Dalhousie Art Gallery.)
[This piece was first published in 1995 as Marlene Creates in the summer issue of Toronto's C Magazine.]
In conversation, Marlene Creates makes it very clear that although she is of Newfoundland ancestry, she was not born and raised on "The Rock." You do not call someone a Newfoundlander lightly. Like "Maritimer," "Newfoundlander" is a jealously guarded designation, and yet I want gently to suggest (fully aware of how contentious this assertion will be to some Newfoundlanders) that like the late Ontario-born folk singer Stan Rogers, who became a Nova Scotian, Creates has become a Newfoundlander by force of artistic will. For both Rogers and Creates a fierce identification with a place began with family roots and ended in art.
Creates has taken photographs and collected natural materials from remote places around the edges of the Atlantic, gradually focussing more and more of her activity on and in Newfoundland and Labrador. She assembles the rocks and photographs and maps she brings back from trips with texts and then makes installations in art galleries. Recently, a survey called Marlene Creates: Landworks 1979--1991 toured the country.
Creates' art is clean, polished, uncluttered, and spare, an amalgam of exquisitely chosen and presented elements. The framing elements of a Creates' presentation, which can include etched texts on glass, specially-designed shelves, and elegant frames, have the neutral look of first-rate exhibition design. Like much contemporary art, elements of a Creates installation are fabricated by craftspeople hired by the artist to execute her designs.
When I first met Creates in 1985 at the Art Gallery of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, she had collected burnt and unburnt driftwood from the Nova Scotia coastline and set it on the parquet floor of the gallery in a big half-black, half-white rectangle which looked like a yin yang symbol with corners. Pristine photographs of her outdoor work with megalithic monuments, standing stones, paper, and natural sites were hung on the white walls.
Create's work can be more or less conveniently divided into that produced before and after her actual move to Newfoundland in the 1980s. The earlier work shows the profound influence of the English artist Richard Long, who has been going on walks and photographing his arrangements of natural things in landscapes since the 1960s.
But there are crucial differences between Long and Creates. Unlike Long, Creates has always made an issue of her wish to have an abiding presence in a site, and to claim it. In one of her earlier photographs, Creates even photographed her hand against a standing stone, something Long would never have done. Herman Rapaport believes that because Long's photographs are "devoid of people...such photographs are also devoid of nightmare, hallucination, and phantoms." ("Brushed Path, Slate Line, Stone Circle: On Martin Heidegger, Richard Long and Jacques Derrida in Deconstruction and the Visual Arts, edited by Peter Brunette and David Wills, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.165.) By contrast, Creates has always wanted to commune with the phantoms she detects in landscape.
Standing stones, the subject of much of Create's earlier work, are themselves evidence of almost unimaginable will and effort to establish a human presence on the land, however natural they may have come to appear to us. A megalith, we remember, is as much a human imposition on the land as, say, an office tower. The paper which Creates installed in megalithic settings was the artist's mark on a landscape already strewn by humans with giant stone remains.
In 1982 Creates photographed the impressions that her sleeping-bagged body made on the ground of various Newfoundland sites. The photographs elegantly understate an emotional attachment to Newfoundland, revealing the artist's desire to literally position herself in it. In Creates' austere products, an emotional attachment and personal identification with the land is displayed without a questionable blood-and-soil emotionalism. The work conveys the neutral and clinical precision one sees in natural history museums, as if a set of neutral, inarguable facts were being presented. But emotion is not absent, and the matter-of-factness of the work succeeds in having us take Creates' identification with Newfoundland as fundamental.
Around 1988, stories and memories of elderly Labrador people entered Creates' work, and in the 1990s she began to supplement her photographs, sticks and rocks with oral histories and memory maps drawn for her by her Newfoundland relatives. Her earlier pictures of standing stones and remote barren vistas saturate a viewer with unpeopled images of Irish, Welsh, and Newfoundland landscapes, whereas the more recent pictures and installations reveal the artist's more sentimental, anecdotal impulses. Create's work continues to be an articulation of a personal struggle or adjustment to the people and geography with which she has decided to bond.