If You Go Out In The Woods Today...

Group Exhibition

December 14, 2007 - March 2, 2008

curated by Paul Petro
Gladstone Hotel 3rd + 4th Floor Public Spaces
1214 Queen St West, Toronto

Mark Bell
Jane Buyers
Gary Evans
Rae Johnson
Nancy Kembry
Suzy Lake
John McLachlin
Allyson Mitchell
Paul Morrison
Mèlanie Rocan
Robert Wiens

The Gladstone Hotel and Paul Petro Contemporary Art are pleased to announce the group exhibition If You Go Out In The Woods Today..., featuring work by Canadian and British artists that considers our natural environment, fairy tales and the history of art through paintings, photography, textiles and works on paper.

From the use of 15th and 16th century botanical woodblock prints as source material for the silkscreens by Paul Morrison to the precarious future of old growth forests in Temagami which inspire Robert Wiens' watercolours, our concept of the natural world, and of forests in particular, has been subject to many radicalizing forces and ideas. This exhibition explores just some of them.

The title of the show is the opening line of The Teddy Bear's Picnic, a lyrical and benign children's song which, while happy and playful, alludes to the darker prospects found in the world of Grimm's Fairy Tales and, by extension, the work of Melanie Rocan and Nancy Kembry. For Rocan the forest can be viewed as a metaphor for the internal world and the range of emotional conditions that interact with our subconscious and childhood memory once we have entered that realm. Fragments of memory, some cheerful and some deeply unsettling, become compositional elements that populate this terrain as symbols of the self and the environment.

In Nancy Kembry's work the subject matter is positioned in a post-nuclear setting as taken from Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker. Kembry sees the book as a surrealistic view of the world after a nuclear war where Hoban's modified phonetic form of the English language describes characters deciphering the remains of man-made structures as natural occurrences, where concrete pillars are understood as "stoan wood". This idea leads Kembry to picture these columns as trees in a manner which also calls to mind the children's book illustrations of Maurice Sendak, where one wonders what is lurking behind the next tree, or in the case of Rocan's work, under the bed at light's out.

Whereas Kembry and Rocan paint from memory, Rae Johnson unabashedly paints in the spirit of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, from direct observation or from studies that have been painted on site. When Johnson moved to Flesherton from Toronto's Queen Street West in the late '80s her subject shifted from gritty streetscapes and interiors to landscapes and cloud formations. In Eugenia Falls, about 5 km from Fleshteron, we are upstream from the falls. The water is shallow and swift. Before anything, the viewer's response is visceral, like listening to music. Like with nature, the work has the power to carry the viewer away with beauty or with force. And like with Rocan's work, the setting becomes a metaphor for reconciling internal dichotomies.

Within the urban setting, particularly in centres like Toronto where ravines, rivers and parkland form a network that crisscrosses the city, we find the sharpened juxtapositions of nature and human intervention. And within these sets of relationships we find mixed uses of social space that shift from day to night. In John McLachlin's The Erotic Possibility of Melancholy we are presented with photographs of verdant parkland and ravine settings in Toronto which by night transform into well-known gay cruising sites in a ritual that pursues the discreet reclamation of civic spaces, where the woods hold forth the expectations of desire.

The mythic nature and lasting impression of forest inhabitants and the oral tradition around rare sightings of creatures such as Bigfoot or Sasquatch finds a third wave feminist interpretation in the Lady Sasquatch work of Allyson Mitchell. Reaching near iconic status within a few short years since its creation, Lady Sasquatch and her familiars invert centuries old forest lore and brings fresh scrutiny to such gender-driven representations. And in the case of Squirrel Lover bestows acknowledgement and licence to forge new relationships that are sanctioned by the self rather than the status quo.

In a post-apocalyptic fusion of source material and Photoshop, the British artist Paul Morrison tweaks his subject matter by turning day into night and night into day, at the same time introducing deep horizon lines and flattened spaces while stretching or otherwise altering centuries' old Dutch botanical print fragments by contemporary means. This method of removing and filtering subject matter from its original is suggestive of the facsimile, a deteriorated suggestion, at some generations of remove.

This idea of displacement carries through in Mark Bell's paintings where the image is lifted from media representations and then reconsidered in the act of painting while remaining faithful to the image-altering vicissitudes of print and digital reproduction. There remains an atmosphere of what once was and has now become, from the mined Venezuelan landscape of Las Cristinas to the inviting yet menacing maw of Northwest Woods.

In 1996 Robert Wiens made his first painting, an oil on paper measuring 42 x 252 inches and entitled White Pine. It was shown in that year at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in an appropriated space at 100 Yonge St., Toronto. This work marked a transition from sculpting to painting that was motivated by the threat of clear-cutting to old growth forests in the Temagami region. In preparation for each of the many paintings that ensued, including the watercolour Red Pine (1998) Wiens would travel to the region, select a tree and then with camera in tow scale a section of the tree and photograph it in consecutive segments. These segments would then be recompiled in the painting process. In this manner the negotiated subject matter draws attention to itself and the permeability of its armored surface. It pleads its case.

In a similar way Suzy Lake's large-scale photograph Authority is an Attribute of Power (Renee) (1994) tackles the complexities of land ownership and identification with the First Nations land claim struggle of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai of Bear Island. Lake inserts a white urban professional into a landscape setting where tourists, loggers and the Province of Ontario play out their vested interests in the latest installment of a centuries-old litany of race and politics.

During a visit in the summer of '93 to landscape painter Doris McCarthy's cottage Jane Buyers produced, on site, a series of black china ink paintings on paper. Her subject was the jack pine, perhaps the most iconic emblem of Canadian landscape dating back to Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Buyers painted them in black and white and concentrated on their tops, the most signature aspect of the tree's posture. They bend, like divining rods. Mutational receptors to the four elements. Pop culture gone camping.

Jay Isaac approaches his subject matter in a similar way with surrealistic paintings that border on abstraction and echo the palette and compositional elements of Lawren Harris, a member of the Group of Seven. With titles such as Hinterland and Misty Horizon he pushes landscape tradition towards a critique of itself, embracing his subject and making it his own while adeptly borrowing from other painting genres along the way. One is left to wonder where, or if, irony exists in these works and, if not, what is there in it's place?

That answer may be found in the work of Gary Evans. The two paintings in this show are from an ongoing series called Field Work. Biomorphic interlacings of colour and shape. A curtain-wall of organic elements suspended in space. Roadside landscape. Or, as observed by the artist and York University professor Nell Tenhaaf, a series of perceptual units known in the parlance of semiotics as "fictive simples", that something which occurs in the generation of an idea somewhere in between the original perception and the naming of that which is seen. Tenhaaf likes to enjoy the beauty in these works on a retinal level before meaning kicks in. Perhaps the power in these works, and the others in this show, resides in their ability to enable the viewer to resist meaning if even for just a little while and to rejoin that childhood ability to find wonderment in the way we look at things