Maxwell Bates, Eroded Land (n.d), oil on canvas, 35.9 x 76.7 cm. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, purchased in 1962
“Things are not always what they appear to be.”
At least, that’s what co-curator Mary-Beth Laviolette said of a current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta during an interview with NGC Magazine. Rough Country: The Strangely Familiar in mid-20th Century Alberta Art explores the emotional, expressive and unsettling work of five Alberta artists affected by the Second World War.
“This is an exhibition of striking, tough and sometimes strange artworks, which together present a darker dimension of postwar life,” says Laviolette. “Melancholy and anxiety are pervading features. These are artists who were not particularly impressed with the prosperity and materialism of the postwar period.”
John Snow, Maxwell Bates, Laura Evans Reid, William Leroy Stevenson and Dorothy Henzell Willis are featured, each chosen for their similar interests in German expressionism, existentialism and the struggles of modern society. Through their paintings, sculptures and prints, these artists attempted to humanize the difficulties faced by individuals in the years immediately following the war.
“These artists were deeply interested in the social milieu, but not in an objective way,” co-curator Ruth Burns told NGC Magazine. “They were committed to communicating their own subjective experiences and responses to the world around them.”
“They had a desire to create artworks which were sometimes visually raw and visceral in their realization,” adds Laviolette.
John Snow, Rough Country (1964), lithograph on paper, 45.7 x 55.9 cm. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection. Gift of the artist, 1990
Bates and Snow – whose work is included in the collection at the National Gallery of Canada – worked together in Calgary in the 1940s. Snow, a former aircraft navigator, studied art under Bates, who was a military veteran. Both were deeply interested in establishing a unique and significant artistic approach that differed from traditional Albertan subject matter and forms.
Snow’s 1964 lithograph, Rough Country, from which the exhibition takes its name, depicts a country road set against a rich yet startling red sky. While Bates’ Two Dolls (1961) and Scarecrows (1960) portray eerie figures that are at once haunting and intriguing.
“Bates worked as a prisoner of war in a salt mine,” says Laviolette. “He believed individuals had very little control over their destiny; hence, his interest in puppets and scarecrows nailed to a cross.”
“His work is quite incredible for the diversity of his stylistic approach, combined with a consistency of themes or subject matter,” adds Burns. “His sense of fate pervades throughout his work. His dolls and unnerving children continue to unsettle me.”
Dorothy Henzell Willis, Children in the Wood (n.d), oil on paper, 71.1 x 90.2 cm (framed). Alberta Foundation for the Arts
Willis also portrayed dolls and children in her art. Her painting Children in the wood (date unknown) depicts young figures huddled together in a forest. Two boats float in the water behind them, signalling the displacement caused by the war.
As a self-taught artist, Willis established a signature style of mixing materials – such as sand and sawdust – into her pigment. Often, she would apply the paint with her fingers as opposed to using a brush. “Willis’ works are full of emotion. Her tendency to finger paint and swirl the oil pigment around on the paper made this aspect of her art even more palpable,” says Laviolette.
Reid’s characters and landscapes are similarly haunting; and as Burns explains, both she and Willis were included in the exhibition to celebrate their contribution to mid-century Alberta art. “Willis and Reid are underrepresented in public collections. During their lifetimes, they exhibited alongside the other artists and participated in larger artist networks, but over time, their work was sidelined.”
W.L. Stevenson, Untitled (Violinist) (n.d), lithograph on paper, 33.5 x 30.3 cm. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection. Purchased with funds from the Miss Bowman Endowment, 1990
Stevenson also contributed to the postwar artistic narrative. His existential landscapes and portraits evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation, such as one work in the exhibition, an untitled lithograph that depicts a solitary figure playing the violin.
Combined in this exhibition, Bates, Snow, Willis, Reid and Stevenson’s work reveals unique perspectives on the landscapes, architecture, families, figures, hardships and struggles that existed in postwar Alberta.
“The province’s art is diverse and can’t be pigeon-holed,” Laviolette says. “There’s more to ‘sunny’ Alberta than you think.”
Rough Country: The Strangely Familiar in mid-20th Century Alberta Art is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until January 31, 2016.
Shannon Moore is an Ottawa-based journalist specializing in writing about art and architecture.
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