Mary Pratt: “A Love Affair with Vision”

By Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC on April 01, 2015


Mary Pratt, Red Currant Jelly (1972), oil on Masonite, 45.9 x 45.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC


Mary Pratt's painting Red Currant Jelly (1972) is an indisputable gem of the National Gallery of Canada collection, and has long held pride of place in the galleries of modern Canadian art. From April 4, 2015 to January 4, 2016 — as part of its “Masterpiece in Focus” exhibition series — the Gallery is telling the story behind a work that Pratt affectionately refers to as “this little painting.”

Mary Pratt: This Little Painting stems from numerous discussions that I have had with Mireille Eagan, Curator or Contemporary Art at The Rooms, St. John's, NL, and one of the curators of a highly successful Canadian travelling retrospective on Mary Pratt's work that has toured venues across Canada over the past two years. Our work with Mary led to a formal taped interview, which has been edited by filmmaker Mark Bennett into a short film on the artist, on view in the show. What follows are highlights of our discussion, including numerous excerpts that, due to time constraints, could not be included in the final video. 

We begin with a discussion of Pratt’s days as a young art student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, where she had three influential teachers — including a fellow East Coast Canadian painter named Alex Colville…

I was lucky enough to go to Mount Allison at a time when there were three teachers there who believed in painting. There was Ted Pulford, who was the drawing master; and there was Lawren Harris [Lawren P. Harris, son of the famous Group of Seven painter Lawren S. Harris] who was an amazing painter, just an amazing painter; and there was Alex Colville, who was the mystic. So you had this sort of philosophical thing with Alex; you had this amazing painterly ability of Lawren; and then the drawing from Ted.

We spent the first year drawing casts, and I thought I was going to die. Casts and still life; no colour, just drawing. And you sat up on a high stool and you measured: you measured this way, that way. Was it straight up and down? Was it horizontal? How did you do that oval — well, goddamn, I can’t get that oval straight . . . Oh, it was horrible, and I remember sitting on this very high stool — my back was killing me — and I thought, Rembrandt never had to do this. And then I thought, “You fool, of course he did. Everybody who’s a painter has to go through this. Now you just smarten up and get on with this.” And, of course, I did.


Mary Pratt, Eviscerated Chickens (1971), oil on Masonite, 45 x 61 cm. The Rooms, St. John's, NL, Memorial University of Newfoundland Collection,

While discipline was key to the course work at Mount Allison, colour is something that Pratt cherishes above all, both in life and in art. I asked her about her use of colour, and especially the red hue which recurs in the works on view in Mary Pratt: This Little Painting.

There’s no doubt that I came from a house that was riddled with red. Red carpets and a belief in red somehow or another. My mother used to be a painter, and of course a cook and so on. And she said, “Isn’t it always so wonderful to put a cherry on at the end, because it’s so beautiful?” And it makes the point: it’s red, it’s beautiful. And, of course, the jelly that we had was usually red, and it would sit in place of honour at the table at Thanksgiving and at Christmas. My mother said it was best to leave the red till last, leave the best till last — red is the best, but don’t start with it.

And she was very good about colour. She told us how to tint the photographs, and she would say, “Now,” and she would pick up a piece of grass, “that’s green, and you’re painting the lawn, and you’re going to make the lawn green. Is it this colour? What colours do you see in the lawn?” And so we saw lavender, and pale green, and yellow, and all kinds of colours. So she would sort of quiz us about that.

And my father, too. If we were driving along the Saint John River, he’d say, “That barn over there: we know that’s red, but it doesn't look red from here. Why doesn’t it look red?” And we didn’t know, and Dad said that maybe it’s the layers of air between us and the red barn. So we discussed colour as a family.


Mary Pratt, Jelly Shelf (1999), oil on canvas, 55.7 x 71.2 cm. Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver

She spoke too, specifically, about the application of red in Red Currant Jelly:

Probably Red Currant Jelly is the first painting where I used red. And it wasn’t easy. I found it a very difficult colour, because it has to do so much. It isn’t just a colour, you know. It’s an emotion, and it had to be clear. Now how do you make a clear red? How do you make a red that looks as if you can look through it? Well I didn’t know how, so I had to depend on photography to teach me — and it did, I think.”

Pratt brings up the use of photography in her work, which is a crucial aspect in her approach to painting, and something that is detailed more closely in the Masterpiece in Focus exhibition. She makes it clear, however, that she is no photographer — nor is photography alone enough for her to feel that she has captured what she wants to capture through the medium of painting.

My process really is kind of in stages. I see something that grabs me, and I do the photography — that’s the first thing. It gets sent off to Toronto or wherever to be processed, and then when all of these slides come back, I’ve forgotten that first jab, that first jab of enthusiasm. So I spread them out on a light board to have a look at them, to see if there’s anything there that I remember. Is there anything that’s going to make me feel like that again? Sometimes there isn’t; sometimes it was just a total waste of time.

And not only that, but because I’ve taken quite a few slides, which slide will it be? So I have the opportunity again to decide what to do with this whole thing. And that’s kind of exciting, because you can only hope that the slides you’ve taken will remind you of that moment when you thought the whole thing was going to be worthwhile, and that you were going to do something wonderful.


Mary Pratt, Fish Head in Steel Sink (1983), oil on Masonite, 52 x 77.5 cm. Private Collection, New Brunswick


These moments of wonderment for Pratt are ones that she has described quite succinctly over the years as “erotic.” I asked her to explain her use of this term.

It’s difficult to talk about, but I do get this erotic charge from vision. I think the world comes to me through my senses, and that’s why I get this charge. The world doesn’t come to me through my eyes exactly; it comes to me through every bit of me, and I think that I’m very lucky from that point of view. I don’t have to look for it — I just don’t. It just comes to me; it bombards me.

If I try to paint outdoors, I just sit there and cry. I can’t paint outdoors too much, but if I’m in the house, I’m safe. I’m safe in the house, and all of these crazy things that happen I don’t mind. I figure that it’s okay, because I’m surrounded by the comfort of my house, of my room or whatever, and it just happens. It’s not something that one just talks about easily, because nobody believes you for one thing, and you can’t really justify it. You just have to say that what happens is true.

It is clear from Mary Pratt’s subject matter over the years that she paints from, and of the comforts of home. For her, such subjects are far from merely commonplace, however, and should be of the utmost importance for and within art. “It’s important to be ordinary,” she says, but…

I think, with my work, even the things that are ordinary are not ordinary, because I don’t believe that anything is ordinary. I think everything is complex and worthy of conjecture, and worthy of a look — worthy of a close look.


Mary Pratt, Cod Fillets on Tin Foil (1974), oil on Masonite, 53.3 x 68 cm. Collection of Angus and Jean Bruneau

During our conversation, Pratt described how she looks closely, taking hold of a pebbled water glass she had in front of her:

[My paintings begin] in the world, but if you were me and you were doing the painting, and if you were painting this glass, there’s all kinds of amazing stuff going on in here. You use your brush to kind of get into these little cracks and crevices, and you can actually feel them as you go along. This isn’t just something that you paint flat; this is something that your brush finds.

You have the photograph to guide you, but it doesn’t say it all, and you know there may be a little bit of red right there. From where I am, there is: there’s a tiny bit of pink there — picking it up from here, I suppose. All these little gems of reality in there that you know you could dismiss, and sort of draw around that lotus shape; but that would be unfortunate, because there are so many little tiny truths in there.

And these little tiny truths — so what, you know, so what? They’re just . . . they’re just pictures, I suppose. But for the painter, or for me, they’re just wonderful places to get your pencil or get your brush and find them, and to sculpt them. Because it isn’t just a matter of painting it; it’s a matter of making it — you make it.

There’s a painting of raspberries that I did, where there were all kinds of little glass blobs, and every blob is different than every other glass blob, and every one of them has to be given its full due. You can’t just say, “Oh well, yes, there’s glass: light on one side and red on the other; now that’ll be enough,” because that’s not the way it is. It’s very intricate. And I just love these intricacies, because they all lend to the truth of the object, or the truth of the vision, and I just think they’re worth doing.


Mary Pratt, The Bed (1968), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 91.4 cm. Private Collection

Pratt speaks about “getting it right” when creating her paintings: the act of ensuring that what began in the world as a moment imbued with an “erotic charge” and captured, however inadequately, in a photograph can be redeemed and remade in the space of painting. Crucial in all of this is Pratt’s adherence to Realism, not just as an aesthetic device, but as an overall philosophy in her approach when setting brush to canvas, paper or board.

There is an argument all the time among artists: whether art comes from art, or art comes from real, from the real world. And I have always said that it comes from the real world. Art cannot come from art. It often does — and a lot of people copy other people’s paintings whether they mean to or not, but they do — and I don’t see any point in that. I like the world to come to me, and thank God it does.

That said, and in conclusion, Mary Pratt admits that she “never thought of [her] work as being an autobiography.”

I just thought of it as being paintings of things that I, for some reason or other, found erotically necessary to have — to have forever. And I hoped that I could bring that erotic charge to the paintings. I don’t think I always did, but that’s not the point — I wanted to remember that. It was a love affair with vision. A real love affair with vision.

Presented by Irving Oil and co-organized with The Rooms, St. John's, NL, the Masterpiece in Focus exhibition, Mary Pratt: This Little Painting is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from April 4, 2015 to January 4, 2016.

By Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC| April 01, 2015
Categories:  Exhibitions

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Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC

Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, NGC

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