(Un)natural challenges, or, April Showers Bring May Flowers
If I am to guess correctly, the urge to paint flowers stems from a desire to capture some of their beauty as it exists in nature. Flowers are synonymous with beauty, and have come to represent love, caring, best wishes, good luck, springtime, fertility, sex: you name a human urge bordering on the pleasurable and I’ll bet there is a flower named for it.
I can see how flowers can become such seductive subject matter for painters: they are colourful, come in all shapes, sizes and textures, and stay still, at least for a few days, which makes them easier to paint. Are these facts themselves reason enough to explain the staggering amount of flower paintings currently on display in this city? Or am I missing something?
I’m not such a huge fan of flower paintings in general, either good or bad. Maybe my disinterest stems from the seeming overabundance of them in galleries, framing shops, malls, etc. Bad flower paintings really make me cringe. Maybe I have allergies to flower paintings, though as far as I can tell I’m fine with the real thing.
No, it can’t be allergies; otherwise a step into Trinity Galleries would most likely end up with a reaction severe enough to land me in hospital. Currently on display there is a veritable cornucopia of flower paintings, all different sizes, different mediums, different artists and techniques, different flowers, and certainly a wide range of successes and failures. A full-on frontal assault of the visual senses. Thankfully there are no ‘scratch ‘n sniffs.’
One reason I tend to be put off by that particular subject matter is the overt crass commercialization. The majority of ‘flower painting’ sites on the Internet offer cheap reproductions, often of iconic paintings, such as those by Van Gogh. Here is what one site dared put into (e)print:
In a letter to his brother Theo, back in 1889, Van Gogh spoke of sunflowers as the still life subject he would make his own. His devotion paid off as sunflowers became as identified with Van Gogh's name as water lilies with Monet.
Devotion? The guy died half insane from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the gut, his art career financed entirely by his brother, shafted by the art elite, his peers and the masses alike. A hundred years after he died a version of his sunflowers set worldwide fine art auction records. I bet he was thrilled. Tell me, please, of any other profession where one’s ‘devotion’ is only to ‘pay off’ a hundred years after a penniless death. Know any investment banker, lawyer, policeman, civil servant, engineer, doctor or politician who would be happy with that arrangement? But I digress.
The bulk of the paintings on display at Trinity Galleries are by Heather Sayeau. Most are competent, in a loosely brushed, faux-impressionist way. I’m sure a good many would look great over a couch or a favourite settee or a fireplace, providing they don’t clash with existing floral printed drapes, upholstery or carpeting. They would certainly bring light and a touch of brightness to any dark corner. Then again, so would a silk plant.
I realize that it isn’t just the genre that raises my ire; what maddens me is seeing a plethora of lazy, uninspired and bland flower paintings. The term “Mannerism” comes to mind—paintings that are formulaic, theatrical and overly stylized. The majority of Sayeau’s paintings look like she didn’t even try that hard. The application of paint is thin, scrubbed half-heartedly across the canvas. Shapes are dull and lisp.
It’s OK to break the rules when it is clear you can play by them. With Sayeau’s paintings I’m not convinced; I don’t know what envelope she might be pushing. I once took a drawing class at NSCAD—where Sayeau is currently teaching painting classes—with Marilyn McAvoy, who can paint an amazing bowl of flowers in that realistic, Dutch or Flemish style featuring dense colouration, crafty brushstrokes and rich, lustrous varnishes. Not only is she technically sound, but there tends to be a little more conceptual rigor in her compositions, which often feature old wooden panels with some sections painted to appear old, sometimes even parts of the flowers painted over, interesting things happening all over. When Sayeau attempts to make compositional breaks, by adding vertical or horizontal bands of solid colour, the overall effect is dulled and cheapened.
I found what was lacking in a visit to Handworks Gallery this past week. There, Darren Emenau is exhibiting new pots, bowls and teapots with extraordinary glazes. The casual finesse is completely engrossing. Titled Offspring, this exhibition takesa more subjective approach to beauty, one that recognizes the beauty in the everyday: the slighted, the abstract moment, the dirt underfoot, the grit under the nails, the beauty of our own backyards.
I should say of Emenau’s own backyard, to be more specific. A good number of the pots on display are made from Saint John river clay, often with bits of twigs and grit still embedded, found near Emenau’s home on the Kingston Peninsula, where he has lived since 2000. Emenau is interested in utilizing natural processes and elements as much as possible in an attempt to fuse form and function.
Whereas paintings of flowers attempt to replicate a natural beauty from the world, Emenau has used natural elements and processes from the world to create pots, bowls and structures that seem to be true offsprings of nature. Colours of moss, lichen, bark, mud, ochres and leaves glaze these bowls. They form sacs, stumps, knotted wood and bones.
Many of these pots and bowls have been turned on a potters wheel and then hand-built, which means there are more irregularities, as the clay has been rolled and assembled, stacked, added and cut away. It is what helps give certain pieces, such as Crock, which contains almost human-looking folds of flesh, a slumping, more natural, trunk-like appearance. They are uneven, crooked and tilting, but in ways that feel comfortable and innate.
Then there are the glazes. For those of us uninformed about how glazes work, it is essentially pigments affixed to the surface of the clay that become glass after the high burning temperatures of the kiln. Emineau uses an outdoor kiln on his property and utilizes the wood-fired technique. Wood firing is part of an unbroken continuity of technology dating back to the Paleolithic era. Adding to his glazes are crushed granite, limestone and slate and other materials found locally. Both salt and ash present in the kiln affect the outcome of the glazes. There are unexpected results: some finishes are luxurious and smooth, pickled and spotted; in cases of ‘ash-slagging’ the finish resembles curled and peeling paint, as best exemplified in Ellie Ewer, a teapot featuring, thick, juicy slabs of glaze curling off the surface of the pot.
Sure, these pots aren’t flowers, nor do they pretend to be. But that’s just the point: Emenau’s challenge is to use as much of the natural world around him to make work from and about that world. His production is elemental and seems ageless, or at least as old as forests and moss and mud. Through a difficult, challenging process something new is made from things very old. For me, when faced with either artificial flowers or earthy pots, the choice is crystal clear: I choose that which challenges me.