Rugged Nonconformity: The Art of Newfoundland and Labrador

By Lizzy Hill on February 19, 2014

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Ned Pratt, May 10th (2011), pigment-based archival print on paper, 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Collection of TD Bank Group

Newfoundland and Labrador have always been a bit of a wild card to critics reaching for unifying characteristics to describe their creative communities. While other regions in Atlantic Canada may be known for strong trends in Conceptualism or Realism, Newfoundland and Labrador stand alone with multifaceted communities of artists, often unacknowledged by the mainstream arts media.

Patricia Grattan’s recent curatorial endeavour, Changing Tides: Contemporary Art of Newfoundland and Labrador (McMichael Canadian Art Collection to 1 June 2014), trumpets this diversity as the very hallmark of the region. Reflecting the creative, non-conformist tendencies of the artists who make the Atlantic province their home, the exhibitionbilled as the first major presentation of contemporary Newfoundland art outside of Newfoundlandincludes nearly 30 artists, ranging from up-and-coming photographers such as Ned Pratt to established landscape artists such as Ron Bolt.

“There’s never been a ‘school of’ or ‘look’ to the work in Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Grattan. “It probably reflects the individualistic characters of Newfoundlanders.” On a more serious note, she adds that one could likely attribute the region’s diversity to the fact that, until the mid-1980s there was no formal art school in the area. “There hasn’t been a great deal of critical discussion, critical commentary and so on,” she notes. But while there may not be clear stylistic or conceptual linkages between the works in the exhibition, the one thread uniting most of the artists is a connection to place.

Newfoundland artist Michael Gough explains to NGC Magazine that his “work is about recalling and recording” his experiences. Newfoundland has rooted itself in his creative identity. “Even when I lived away, I felt a pull from the island, and it’s always managed to find a way into my work,” he says. “It is part of me—the land, the water.” Many of Gough’s paintings, such as The Impression of Something Real, serve as colourful, abstract “memory maps,” transcribing the external landscape to his internal terrain. “I’ve become interested in what we forget about a place, an experience or a person,” he says. “What do we hold on to, and what do we lose?”

Though her work bears little aesthetic resemblance to Gough’s, artist Kym Greeley also draws from her local geography, albeit in quite a different way. “The Newfoundland landscape is so vast, that it is impossible for it not to influence my art,” she says. Her Terra Nova 2 (2012), a screen-printed painting of a road through the forest, reflects the unromantic ways most of us connect with the natural world. “I am more interested,” she says, “in how most of our exposure to our landscape is through traveling in our cars from one place to another—from home to a cabin around the bay, for example.”

Other featured artists view their work as a collaborative performance with the natural world. Newfoundland artist Marlene Creates refers to her work as a “co-production” with her environment. “My work is where the inside (my mind) and the outside (this environment) meet,” she told NGC Magazine. Her photographic series of prints titled About 8 1/2 Minutes from the Sun to the Moon to the River to My Face to the Camera, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland, 2012, is an elaborate self-portrait documenting the reflection of natural light off of her face. “My art comes from a slow engagement with the details of this particular patch of boreal forest, deliberately focusing on its sensorial aspects––looking, touching, listening, and appreciating.”

Much of artist Barb Hunt’s inspiration lies in the traditional customs and rituals of Newfoundlanders, and their effect on the psyche. Hunt’s Heart’s-Ease (2000)—two floral-patterned plasma-cut steel dresses—bears both the common name of Viola tricolor, a flower that is rumored to give solace, and the name of a small community in Newfoundland. “My work at the time was focused on the rituals of mourning that communicated love to the deceased,” she explains. The piece is a clever reinterpretation of a traditional Newfoundland handmade burial shroud; by creating a steel burial shroud, Hunt subverts the sense of frailty and impermanence typically associated with the object.

For Michael Massie, a Labrador-based sculptor with mixed Inuit, Métis and Scottish heritage, it’s the stories we tell about a place that inspire him. “I like to read stories of actual events, myths and spirits, shamanism,” he says. “Working with shamanistic or mythical themes allows me to be more abstract in my forms, especially faces.” For instance, the sculpture recalling his journey (not featured in the exhibition) best captures this approach, depicting a shamanic transformation in serpentine, bone, brass, mahogany, bloodwood and ebony. His Walrusty Teapot (featured in the exhibition) tells a simpler tale, uniting form and function to whimsically capture the likeness of a walrus—an animal occasionally spotted on the eastern coast of his home province.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the exhibition is that it demonstrates that the creative communities in Newfoundland and Labrador are growing. Artists from other areas are now moving to the region, attracted to both its landscape and its creative freedom.

One of these is Ottawa-born painter Will Gill. Gill moved to St. John’s by way of New Brunswick about 15 years ago to work as an apprentice at a bronze foundry for casting sculpture, and has since made the region his home. Much of his work, such as Man in Red Pants (2013), features abstract human forms in chaotic, perilous situations, turning the artist’s own anxiety outwards. It’s no surprise that he’s intuitively drawn to the ocean as a force highlighting the frailty of life around it. Though it would be wrong to refer to him as a regionalist painter, the ocean has long served as a source of inspiration for Gill’s video work, live-action art, and paintings. “To me, its poetry comes from its extraordinary power to give and take,” he says.

Ned Pratt’s work also inspires an intense emotional response in viewers. Devoid of life, many of his photographs, such as his Façade—a digital photograph of a bare-bones dwelling situated on a barren, monotonous landscape—capture the notion of isolation, inspiring mixed feelings of fear and tranquility. A deep connection with his landscape is fundamental to his creative process. “Being familiar with a place lets you see beyond the exuberance of an initial response to something. It lets you concentrate on the subtleties that others may not see,” says Pratt. “I couldn't do this work anywhere else,” he adds. “I could take pictures for sure; but they wouldn't be about anything.”

Changing Tides: Contemporary Art of Newfoundland and Labrador is on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, until 1 June 2014.

By Lizzy Hill| February 19, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.


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