Landscapes have always been a natural muse for Canadian artists, and interpretations of such an inherently stable subject have always been a welcome challenge for those who want to capture its grandeur in a unique way. The Group of Seven painted vistas abstractly, but still captured the native beauty of Canada. More recently, photographers such as Edward Burtynsky have captured the stunning, but often dark work of “manufactured landscapes”—beauty present in industrial settings, however unintentional.
Three new exhibits at Montreal’s Art Mûr put three different spins on natural landscapes, all exploiting the tension between the enduring beauty of the subject and the creative imprint that is left by any artist attempting to capture it. The result is a series by Quebec and Ontario artists that revisits familiar spaces with unfamiliar methods, often with an uncanny effect.
Featured in the window of Art Mûr is Judith Berry’s oil-on-canvas Doubt, in which striped green scrub-brushes and 3D oval structures surround a sink-hole that presumably gives the work its title. As with the rest of the series, titled Duped / Duplicata, the perspective can be seen as minuscule in scale, suggested by the microbe shapes that dominate the large canvases, or expansive and aerial, like a shot of crop circles in a field. Indeed, all of the paintings seem to suggest paranormal environments and alien worlds, apparent in the objects’ organic fluidity of the objects, as well as in the artist’s choice of perspective.
Berry is at her best when painting wholly recognizable, faintly politicized landscapes, like a Japanese field in Outlook (I Dream of Japan), and adding a dimension of weirdness, playing with shapes in an abstract, topographical way. However, her paintings are underwhelming both aesthetically, with dull colours and lines, and conceptually—the juvenile, “trippy” patterns fail to travel through the mind’s uncanny valley for very long.
Holly King’s Grand Canyon: Unseen is installed on four walls in the adjacent room, and the photos are the clear standout of the three new exhibitions. King has created tiny, 8×12 models from the memory of her spring trip to the Canyon a few years ago, in which a bizarre May snowstorm prevented her from seeing the traditional postcard vista. The result is a happy accident, as the detail and contrast expressed in the large-format, black and white photos of the scale models is mesmerizing. Each photograph contains the deeply textured foreground of a precipice, with a photo of the Grand Canyon printed on a transparency, serving as the background. The visual result is seamless and jarringly real; at first, the prints appear to be photographs of actual terrain. The somewhat clever irony in the fact that a grand landscape is miniaturized as a facsimile, and expanded once again, is obvious. But what gives these prints such magnetism is the alluring mixture of uncanny fantasy, the mysterious nature of the perspective from which we see the cliff’s edge, and the size of the photographs.
Finally, Eric Lamontagne’s Road Paintings depicts ‘side-of-the-road’ landscapes that are digitally warped to create melting earth, static water, and blank skies. The displaced space is visually interesting, but it is hard to see these as Kerouacian, as suggested by the exhibit brochure’s On The Road tie-in—perhaps an attempt to build on the hype of the upcoming movie advertised on posters a block away. A vinyl road stretched across the floor of the room leads up the wall to a painting, which, in turn, depicts a road leading to a cul-de-sac. Early in the exhibit’s vernissage, the installation was amusingly improved by a toddler, who stood on the highway and looked back at her mother while she made small talk with the artist. When she left, however, the fake asphalt seemed to be all the more exposed as a thematic gimmick. It’s a shame—the pretty roadside paintings don’t need its support.
If you’re a collector with an interest in alternative depictions of landscapes or a lover of Canadian art, this trio of exhibits is certainly worth a look. King’s work aside, however, the casual observers are likely to be underwhelmed by the majority of the works.
Duped / Duplicata, Grand Canyon: Unseen and Road Paintings are on display from Jan. 12 to March 2 at Art Mûr (5826 St. Hubert).