Saturday, September 6, 2008

Day 35: Pool

The Moose Jaw gallery had an exhibition on by Dorothy Knowles. I found it amusing that the sign outside read simply "KNOWLES", which was coincidentally the same name as the motel that made me feel so unwanted the night before.

Knowles is a landscape artist, and I found myself comparing her to another female Canadian landscape artist whose work I had recently seen in Calgary: Emily Carr. The most striking thing to me about Carr's work was how disjarring her compositions were. Walking into a gallery full of her paintings made me uneasy. I wanted to reframe her work to give a more pleasant composition. Knowles, on the other hand, generally uses classic, serene compositions, and walking into her gallery was almost like walking into a living room. If anything, I wouldn't mind her to be a bit more daring.

But a lot of the difference is in the implied distance to the subject. Carr's work is up-close, almost tactile. You can feel the shape and texture of her trees with your eye's hand. Knowles on the other hand, has everything in the distance. Nothing you can touch, but a short drive or a good hike will get you there. It is the British Columbian versus the Saskatchewan landscapes. Closed in, vertical, and personal, versus wide open, horizontal, and distant.

I won't claimto be any kind of art critic, and I certainly can't give a full review of either artist's work. Too much Carr gives me a headache, and I would have needed long johns and a parka to take in Knowles's winter scenes properly.

I have been using "landscape" here in the general sense of an outdoor scene emphasizing the environment, whether natural or artificial, but when I contemplate the idea of "landscape" what I idealize is a certain quality. The painting should draw you in, invite you to wander around in its setting, to explore it with your eyes. I don't know how to describe it rightly, it is the feeling that this is a place you could go, and after turning away, the feeling that this is a place you have gone to, climbed its tree, drunk of its waters.

To me, this is most epitomized by the masterpiece "Early Spring" by Kuo Hsi (Gui Xi). I take it as a quite personal affront that after his death, the fashion for landscape changed and his tapestries hanging in a Chinese palace were painted over, made permanently unavailable to modernity.

The Chinese artists of that period were somehow able to produce this feeling in me by shrouding their works in mists, which I need to peek behind, but to get there I suppose I will need to climb the mountain after seeking advice from the figure in the foreground, made miniscule by the scale of the landscape. Meanwhile, I am staring at a work of art, and so my hand tries to retrace the scraggly lines that make up the twisted trees and crumbling boulders here. And so my eyes are slowed down, they take considerable time in taking it all in, despite the fact that the work seems to use a minimum of brush strokes and washes.

And so that is one example of this wandering quality to a landscape. There are certainly other ways to achieve it, and even ones which might stretch the formal definition of landscape. Another example I can almost visualize while sitting out here under the trees is actually a certain "Where's Waldo" image, of a giant, bizarre four-way football game, of uncertain rules. And here I wander as I take in all the figures, try to figure out what they are doing, why they are doing it, and form them into larger groups. Certainly all of the Waldo images use similar techniques, and maybe I'm being a little bit silly comparing them to the Chinese masters, but most of the Waldo images do not produce this wandering feeling in me, anyway. At most one other. And this image might not even be thought of as rightly a landscape, because take away the figures, and there is nothing.

Why do I bring this up here? Certainly none of Carr's work that I saw had this wandering quality. I admired her curves, forms, and use of color, but few works invited exploration, and none deeply. Knowles's early work, on the other hand, seemed to be stretching, aching to produce a place to wander, and she succeeded quite capably in her painting, "Pool".

It is a simple composition, a large sky hanging over a forest in the distance. Somewhat nearer is a field with a large pool on the left hand side. It produced such strong desire, strong wandering in me. Knowing that I would never see it again, I sat down in front of it until I could gain sufficient mastery of my feelings to teach myself how she touched this vein in me.

But I still do not know. It is a mystery that I cannot recapture. Her big blocks of trees are a forest on the edge of my vision. I must hike there so that I can find the trails that run among them. But I know they are just blocks of paint, outlined by charcoal. I dive into her pool, I suppose, because the reflection is just dishonest enough that time must have passed since I glanced at the forest.

The sky! The sky is what proves the landscape, what makes the color blocks a forest and the stripes grass. I cannot explore it, cannot gain a foothold in it. Its clouds are huge, real Saskatchewan clouds, and as you look into them they change shapes just like real clouds. Now this one is a lady's face, and now it is a horse's mane.

It is too much, anyway, for me, and after the peak of emotion was gone there was little I could take from the painting other than this woman had been visited by genius, at least on occasion. So I wandered away from the Pool, and into the town of Moose Jaw, to see what I might find there.

Day 35 ended: 50*36.197N, 105*24.339W

1 comment:

PsySal said...

Fabulous post, I went and looked for some of her art. I see what you mean, actually (I couldn't find "Pool" but I think the qualities you mention show in her other paintings)

Hope things are going well! We certainly miss you around here lately, it's been something of a chateau reunion. Lisa and Ed are both in town and staying here, two nights ago we had Lisa, Ed, Clement, Peter, Luke, Richard, Shawnti and of course Michelle and Me here (did I forget anyone?)

We miss you a lot.