Approaching the Landscape

Early Summer Garden by Susan Hubley at Second Gallery

“The skin around every city looks the same. Miles of flat neon spelling well-known names.” That line from Bruce Cockburn’s song “Silver Wheels” is as true now as it was in 1976.

We have all had the experience of driving into some North American city down a multi-lane road and past a long strip of malls, fast-food joints, and gas stations, though few of us will have looked at it with the attention and criticality of Jack Bishop.

The 15 paintings in his new show at Studio 21 all take a good long look at the ubiquitous “skin” around out cities. Brandscapes brings us a sardonic series of mediations on car culture, urban sprawl, and our reflexive search for the familiar, no matter where we are.

These works deliberately hark back to the history of Canadian landscape painting, the end of the railway line views of nature brought to us by the Group of Seven. But where the Group ignored how close this wilderness actually was to the city, much of it the product of second- or even third-growth forests after logging, Bishop takes our urbanization of nature as his subject. The result are disturbingly beautiful paintings that chart a “geography of nowhere” (a phrase Bishop borrowed from author James Howard Kunstler).

The majority of the works in this show are small views of fast food restaurants and big box stores, always seen from a perspective that, while not quite aerial, is elevated, as if we are seeing the subject from atop an elevated highway.

Their composition reminds me of Jack Chambers’ famous view from an overpass on the 401, or Alex Colville’s scenes from the window’s of cars. But Bishop isn’t a realist, his paintings are loose and colourful, brushy and fluid, more akin to the paintings of another Saint John native, Gerard Collins.

The five large works in this exhibition are made up of multiple views of roadside stops, signs, and even a few sightings of wildlife in adjacent fields. They feel like a visual diary of a road trip, and, indeed, their sources are photographs stitched together into montages, combining multiple perspectives into coherent, if frenetic, works.

Coffee for a Buck, with its parade of billboards, gas stations and restaurants reads like a travelogue of a trip anywhere—though the landscape these constructions so uneasily inhabit does seem familiar—the road between Halifax and Sant John, perhaps. Bishop says that he wants his paintings to “represent a sense of excess and consumption.” That they do, awhile remaining a true pleasure to look at.

Susan Hubley’s new exhibition, Verve at Secord Gallery also features the local landscape, though here the intent is more of an escape from urbanization. Hubley’s work is as much about the act of painting itself as it is about its subject matter, a modernist approach that makes sense once one realizes that she studied with local luminaries Anthony Law and John Cook.

There is a hint of the painting of the 1950s in this work, from when artists were trying to respond to abstract expressionism and still maintain a representational approach. Blocky compositions, loose grids, and heavy enclosing lines marked a lot of those works, as well as dull palettes and reliance ongreys, browns, ochres.

Hubley, however, adapts those late modern strategies to her own ends. Several of her landscapes, for instance, feature an overlaid grid made up of broken black lines: as if we were viewing the scene through some sort of screen. It isn’t as abrupt as that, of course, her grids are skilfully integrated into the landscapes. Nevertheless, they break up the illusion, reminding us constantly that we are looking at a painting, as something constructed.

Her use of brightly coloured blocks of paint, again laid over the overall scene in a loose grid, serves a similar purpose. The works are not meant to mimic nature, but to express feelings about the scene depicted – to draw us into feeling as well as seeing.

Her works are exuberantly coloured, dynamically composed, and visually complex. Works such as Red Tress in Spring or Pond in Blue almost shimmer, pulling the eye back and forth across their surface, and in and out of the picture plane. One actively looks at these works, and so the seeing is all the more rewarding.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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