Doris McCarthy at Wynick/Tuck
16 March 2005
One of the issues I have lately with the art scene here in Toronto, and throughout Canada for that matter, is how much snobbery happens within the scene, not to mention the clichés. It's pretty much for that reason that I only found out about Doris McCarthy last week.
Somehow, the books, the reviews here and there, all of that escaped my attention. I guess it's because she's a painter which for the most part isn't considered as interesting as playing with photographs or arranging lumps of wood or styrofoam as many of my friends do. As a painter myself, I've also been forced into apologetics, or attempts to make it sound more philosophical than it is.
So, at this point, I'm running into the danger that you've heard of her. It's probably safer for me to assume that you have. But, if you're like me, and have been hiding under an artist-run-centre's rock, (or that of the Sculpture Garden which is pretty cool) than, let's talk about Doris McCarthy as if we've never heard of her.
She's quite old - in her early 90s, the same age as my grandmother. And now she has a gallery named after her, but as I said, I haven't been paying attention so I can't tell that story. It's in Scarborough (U of T Campus) and it's been open for a year.
But my story here is that I was in the 401 Richmond building a couple of weeks ago for an after-hours meeting, and afterward, in the hallway, making a phonecall, the paintings in Wynick Tuck caught my eye, and I said to myself, 'wow, I like that stuff'. A couple of days later, I see a Doris McCarthy book in the bookstore, and suddenly I've felt out of touch. My suspicions toward genre-interest groups really seemed driven home.
So today I dropped into the show, and I really liked it. I should say up front I'm not a real critic, I'm just an artist who's been given the opportunity to write about art. A real critic reads lots and lots of American and French theories and then sees a show like McCarthy's, and then finds a way to either praise it because she's old and venerable, or pan it because it's too pretty and it doesn't take into account some dead French guys thoughts about our big toes or the problems we've had with our mothers. So I can't, nor would I want to, give you the loaded platter of theoretical cold cuts. All I can say that I found this show to be a breath of fresh air.
I could, and perhaps I should, say that for some reason in the last 50 years, North America has decided to venerate old lady painters - Grandma Moses in the States, and Nova Scotia's Maud Lewis. But both Moses and Lewis were 'naïve' painters, that is, they didn't go to art school, so their 'folksy' work was seen as simply charming by wealthy and powerful people who wanted something to spend money on and to say 'oh, that's so great!' Thus, through Thorstein Veblen's theory, fueling an art market - books, magazine articles, a place in galleries. Doris McCarthy is schooled. The biography on her website tells us that she was teaching art history 'in the mid 1900s ' and I think, oy vey! And that she had to go around copying famous works for her students, because prior to the days of our glossy, excellent reproductions, there was no better way of getting students examples. So, despite the fact that she's an old lady, she doesn't have anything in common with Moses nor with Lewis. So let's not package her into that mythos.
The paintings aren't egotistically sized - nothing really heroic. They seem to be sized according to the subject matter. The ice-berg painting is big enough to encompass an iceberg, that type of thing. She knows what she's doing. But what I really liked about them was that they seemed so young and vibrant. I mean, sure, there are clear references to the Group of Seven. Some of the Northern landscapes reminded me of Lawren Harris, whose work is popularly derided by academics - and for years I found them a little too blobalicious to admire, but then one day, walking through the AGO, their uniqueness kind of hit me ... that style had grown on me, and I appreciated them. Over the past year I've begun to really appreciate the Group of 7, and all this landscape art that it inspired over the past hundred years - McCarthy's lifetime.
For a while it seemed so boring and cliché - and you see the photographs of McCarthy sketching in the North and you could groan - I mean, how boring can you get? The U.S. have heroic painters attacking their canvases and we get photos of people carefully painting away, sitting on a rock in the grass. At least it seems more civilized.
Trust me, I grew up in what's considered an idyllic landscape, and while it's gorgeous on a postcard, or even in a painting, the truth is you're so bored because the movie theatre is a half-hour away, and you only get to see blockbuster new releases - and the bookstores - don't get me started (a Coles in a strip mall is no bookstore). This is why I'm happy to be in the city, but why the nature art stuff has also started to grow on me - reminding me that this country is so much more than it's urban propaganda. I mean, with something like 1/3 of Canadians living in Toronto, and the CBC headquarters downtown, and Much Music ... all the reasons that we think we're at the centre of things, this nature art stuff of McCarthy's and the G7 remind us that there's more to this story that what happens in our country's cities. For one thing, there's a lot of bored people out there living in beautiful landscapes.
The young people in rural Canada either are so used to their life there they don't care to leave, or they yearn for some action like they see on TV, so they come to the cities. That's the standard story. So it's odd to me, in a sense and now that I'm thinking about it, that McCarthy can portray the landscapes with such happy energy, so that I can describe it as young and vibrant. Young people don't paint the landscape - they paint their friends. They put their energy into that. McCarthy seems to be friends with the land. She's clearly getting off on its shapes, on the way it falls together into an image before her eyes. Ninty years of 20th Century life have not dulled her into a sullen depression about the fate of man nor made her bemoan environmental degradation. No - to her it seems, it is all still beautiful.
I love how the images are made up of flat areas of colour. There's the occasional flourish of paint elegantly gooped on, for the materialist crowds, but really, you'd think they'd been designed using Illustrator. The colours are wonderful, they're all very bright, and they suit me as someone who sees so much design on the web, and who appreciates the aesthetics of design for preserving a sense of beauty as regular art went all mad with blood and guts and beating the West over the head with a message of 'you're bad!'.
Now, the price list for these paintings had them ranged from $33,000 - $2,300. All the watercolours seemed to be sold out, and I figured that may have something to do with affordability, since I found them the weakest. Watercolours 'are supposed' to be about transparency - thin washes, the whiteness of the paper shining through - some kind of evanescent image hung together out of veils of colour. The type of work that lends itself to writers typing out 'veils of colour', right .... but I found them a little dark. Maybe I'm remembering wrong, but the oils were just so full of light compared to the watercolours, which were relatively small compared to the canvases, and seemed uninspired. However, they were sketches - studies on which the inspiration, solid composition, and confident execution of the paintings could be based.
This show kind of proved to me that hipness is lame. I know that somewhere there's someone complaining about her work as being that of an old conservative, and that whoever that is probably calls themselves a video artist or something to that effect. Not that I'm dissing video art or anything like that, but it's just that McCarthy, in her twilight years, expresses an affection for the land, and plain old joi-de-vivre, which I really appreciated today, considering it was sunny and everything, and it's so much better than some nihilist trying to remind me that there are evil people in the world and making crappy work because they identify as cutting edge.
New Canvases, Watercolours and Earlier Work @
Wynick/Tuck, until March 26
401 Richmond St West, Suite 128
416-504-8716 T-Sat 11-5
- March 2005: Published on BlogTo.com
- 2005-2015 Archived on my websites & blog
- May 2023: this version produced