Wednesday, October 2, 2013

(No.249) "The marvellous Mary Pratt"

"The marvellous Mary Pratt:
a touring national exhibition"

by Alastair Rickard

Canadian painter Mary Pratt has not had as high a public profile as her former husband Christopher. Both are well-established painters of the so-called realist school, Christopher Pratt with his paintings of boats and buildings, Mary with her 'domestic' subjects (as media shorthand would have it).

Mary Pratt's paintings, while collected by many, have not fully engaged the trendy attention or overcome a fashionable snobbery to be found in good measure among the staff of some major public galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

In such places curators consider themselves too sophisticated to be interested in hosting one of the stops in a national tour of a 50 year retrospective of the work of the 78 year old Mary Pratt. Such curatorial staff have been known to sniff at art that is too 'realistic', i.e., too accessible to the wider public. Much better in such august but taxpayer-supported institutions to devote as much wall space as you can get away with to the creative output of the talentless, to larger works of, say, three horizontal lines separating solid panels of different shades of white.

Fortunately there are public galleries in Canada which are interested in paintings by artists who may not be as fashionable as some of the contemporary 'artists' but are genuinely talented. Now on tour is a special exhibition, "Mary Pratt", that will last about three years. It has been organized by The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St.John's Newfoundland (Pratt's provincial residence since the 1960s) and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

The exhibition opened at The Rooms and has now moved to the Art Gallery of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario where Pat and I attended the opening weekend. Enhanced by an interesting and informative  video with Mary Pratt's comments it is a 50 year retrospective of the work of a great Canadian artist who studied art at the University of New Brunswick more than a half century ago with Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven and the later famous Canadian realist painter Alex Colville.

Mary Pratt is sometimes referred to as a "photorealist" painter, in my view a somewhat misleading word as applied to her style and output during the past half century. Yes there are paintings like "Jelly Shelf" but there are -- and they are included in the exhibition -- numerous examples of works that are neither 'domestic' objects nor 'photorealistic'. There is interesting diversity in this exhibtion.

"Fredericton (Waterloo Row)" (1972) depicts a house and trees in a pleasant setting but not in the same fashion as, say, her "Salmon on Saran" (1974). Her female nudes to be seen in "Blue Bath Water" (1983) or the series of portraits of "Donna" remind one of Colville's nudes with his wife as model. Other paintings are striking images like "The Service Station" (1978) of part of a moose carcass hanging from the hook of a tow truck; and a man and a youth shifting a large cod in "Another Province of Canada" (1979).

Mary Pratt's paintings, 75 of which are included in this new exhibition, are a joy to view. Her artistic talent is impressive, her techniques successful -- none more so than her use of light and reflection. More than a decade ago a reviewer of Pratt's book "A Personal Calligraphy" (2000) argued that an exhibition of her work "is startling. It's all about things looking just as they are, yet not being what they appear to be."  I see the point and it is well illustrated in this latest exhibition.

Pratt has said that she is a "visual artist not an intellectual one" but in her book she wrote that "I've never wanted to paint what I did not know -- intimately and sensuously. The look of things, the feel of things -- their ability to arouse me -- has led me along the paths you see in my pictures." Also that "it is easy to be tricked into thinking that a popular ideology is a satisfactory substitution for a personal philosophy. It is hard not to join the parade. My paintings investigate my observations of my own life."

For me she is also delightfully unfashionable (and seems not to care) not only in certain sections of the art world but in certain of her attitudes. "I am personally opposed," she has said," to a world awash with easy information and facts. I prefer to discover things for myself and celebrate those in my painting."

The Mary Pratt exhibition is one that both Pat and I enjoyed and may well attend again. The Art Gallery of Windsor is located in a new building on Riverside Drive in Windsor and enjoys a gorgeous view of and across the Detroit River. The exhibition stays in Windsor until Jan. 5, 2014. For details visit

 After its stay in Windsor, the Pratt Exhibtion moves to the McMichael Canadian Gallery (near Toronto) from Jan.18 through April 27, 2014; then to the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina  from May 16 to Aug. 27, 2014 and concludes in Halifax from Sept. 12 throuugh Jan.11, 2015 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Sources on Mary Pratt and her art:

Tom Smart, "The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light" (1995).

Mary Pratt,  "A Personal Calligraphy" (2000)

A volume of essays by Sandra Gwyn & Gerda Moray entitled "Mary Pratt" (1989)


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