Christopher Pratt, the noted Canadian painter and iconic figure in his native Newfoundland, died on June 5, 2022. He was eighty-six.
Pratt, as noted by Rooms curator Mireille Eagan in the Globe and Mail, “described his artworks as ‘littoral’— existing in the space between the abstract and the figurative, between the planned and the natural.” Which doesn’t exactly sound like “realism” does it? But of course, as is made clear in a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Christopher Pratt wasn’t exactly a realist.
Christopher Pratt’s paintings of Newfoundland hover between seeming more real than the actual places, and somehow the stuff of dreams. They function, in short, the way memory does, with all its accuracies, omissions, and inventions. He once told Eagan that his works were about “presence,” an assertion that situates his work solidly amidst the ‘philosophical’ painting plied by his teacher at Mount Allison, Alex Colville, among others. That space he described, between the abstract and figurative, is conceptual: the space of thought.
Pratt’s body of work is a thoughtful and poetic meditation on what it means to be alive in a very specific place, while resonating beyond geography. Pratt’s 1978-79 painting, Exit (the irony of this work being on display at the time of his death would, I suspect, have appealed to a man of Pratt’s dry wit), is an example. It depicts a multi-paned door in an anonymous building, a train station perhaps, or a government office. Somewhere official, anyway, as evidenced by the drab grey-green walls, the very apotheosis of institutional colour. The walls in this room are completely featureless, lacking even the surface details of wear and tear, no cracks, abrasions, or flaking paint, just a creamy surface that devolves into a void when looked at closely. Over the closed door the red exit sign glows quietly, while beyond there is play of light and shadow that tells of space beyond, though with no clue of what sort. You can leave, this painting suggests, but you may not be going anywhere.
Christopher Pratt and Colville, along with Mary Pratt and Tom Forrestall, were often associated together under the umbrella term ‘Atlantic Realism.’ It’s an awkward term, really, and accurate only insofar as all four artists were realists who worked in Atlantic Canada, not because they were part of any artistic school.
Tom Forrestall paints details with finely tuned observation (not for him the featurelessness of surface seen in Exit), and Mary Pratt reproduced colour photographs meticulously, down to the blurring and other effects caused by the camera lens. Both are, emphatically and unapologetically, realists, though of differing types (Mary Pratt, if she must have a label, was more of a photorealist, while Tom Forrestall hews more to the Magic realism school as practiced by Andrew Wyeth or George Tooker).
Forrestall is represented here by Untitled (late 1960s – early 1970s), a small rondo of a grass fire seen through a window at night. Its quiet realism is enhanced by small details such as the gold wire framed glasses on the window ledge, and the texture of the rough wooden wall inside the house. Where Christopher Pratt pares an image down to an idea, Forrestal revels in the detail, enlivening each image with a fierce looking.
Both Mary Pratt and Tom Forrestall paint what they see, making the act of looking paramount in their work. Christopher Pratt and Colville, while attentive to accuracy, stripped their images down to essentials, painting not so much what they were looking at, but what they were thinking about after looking at things.
Realism’s Reach is a multigenerational exhibition that brings together several artists from Atlantic Canada whose painting can fall under the rubric of realism. Curator Sarah Moore Fillmore pushes the umbrella term of Atlantic realism into new territories, a fruitful and useful intervention into a discussion that too often gets bogged down in sterile discussions of technique.
Alex Colville’s early paintings were often considered to be akin to surrealism, specifically to the particular form of magic realism that was briefly popular in New York art galleries, surrealism without the sex or emotional bombast. But Colville’s work did not really fit any category, as strongly evidenced by the two works in Realism’s Reach: Studio (2000) and Headstand (1982). In one, the artist stands nude in his studio, facing the viewer, in the other, the artist’s wife is depicted, also nude, doing a handstand on what appears to be their front porch. In both, the subject of the painting is performing for the viewer, taken out of their comfort zones, forced to undergo scrutiny. This, these paintings say, is ultimately the human condition, whatever the facades we raise— naked, uncomfortable, and vulnerable.
Both Christopher Pratt and Alex Colville used photographs as source material, as references rather than subject matter. For Mary Pratt, however, the specificity of the photograph (in her case colour slides) was her subject, or, more correctly, was a function of her true subject: light. In Sunday Dinner (1996), a roast of beef glistens on a silver platter, the only background the rich woodgrain of a table or counter. This painting is as devoid of extraneous detail as is Exit, but in Mary Pratt’s painting that is a result of focus rather than of composition. There was nothing in the photograph that needed to be edited out, she even left parts blurry, evidence of how the lens filtered light, rather than the human eye.
Christopher and Mary’s daughter, Barbara, also paints photographs. Russian Tips (2021) shows an elaborately iced cupcake, the brightly colored swirls giving the painting its name. The cake is front and centre of the painting, on a neutral ground which blurs to a mere field in the background, a function, again, of the camera, but also a compositional device to create focus in the work. Shown next to her mother’s work, Russian Tips displays both a mature sensibility of her own, and a nod to the work of both of Barbara Pratt’s parents.
Realism, Moore Fillmore’s introductory text tells us, began as a movement that “depicted everyday subject matter in a lifelike way.” While we tend to think about realism today as being about visual accuracy to what the viewer considers real, its roots are in content, not in technique. When Realism became recognized as a style, all painters worked in a representational manner. Realists just chose to depict ordinary things rather than historical events or allegorical scenes. Now primarily lumped with conservative anti-modernism, Realism was originally quite radical, even revolutionary. Depicting working people and their activities with the same gravitas as the doings of saints, generals and kings was controversial, and not always popular.
Realism’s Reach includes three paintings from the first half of the 20th century that show this focus on ordinary, even excluded, people. Elizabeth Cann’ s The Soldier’s Wife (1941) is a war painting, but it depicts a woman waiting at home, and a poignant sense of uncertainty, fear, and ultimately, bravery, still shines out from this remarkable work. The sampling of Atlantic realism’s progenitors is rounded out by two portraits by Stanley Royle. John Keeling (1932) and Fisherman at Prospect (1933) were done while he was still teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art, before leaving to head the fine arts department at Mount Allison University (where he taught a young Alex Colville).
Royle left Halifax after a dispute with the then principal of the NSCA, Elizabeth Styring Nutt, a conservative painter who had little time for Royle’s approach or methods. Their conflict presaged the polarities of Mt. Allison versus NSCAD that would influence much of the art making in Atlantic Canada through the latter half of the century, albeit, after 1968, with a marked shift in which school was considered the conservative one.
Atypical realists in this show are Kym Greeley and Andrea Mortson. Mid-career artists based in Saint John’s and Sackville respectively, neither would typically be thought of as realists. That is exactly why, one suspects, that Moore Fillmore has included them.
Greely paints flattened landscapes, even more devoid of specific detail than Christopher Pratt’s, based in part on the early digital landscapes of gaming platforms. Her From the Road (2008) shows a stretch of highway at night, each component (the road surface, the trees which line it, the black sky ahead) utterly flat, lacking any specific detail at all. These landscapes too, have the feel of memory, but of memories with more distance than the lovingly recreated scenes of Christopher Pratt’s Newfoundland. A memory of home from a tiny apartment in New York or Toronto, perhaps, rather than from the front porch of a house in Salmonier. Mortson’s The Closer I get to You (2009-10) is even more of an outlier, its jumbled images floating in a Day-Glo riot of colour, a kind of skater-punk surrealism, energetic and engaging
The youngest artists in the exhibition, Darcie Bernhardt and Letitia Fraser, return to photography as their source material. Nungki (2019) is based on a photograph of Bernhardt’s uncle as he was making slippers in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. The quiet presence of this work, with its brushy, minimalist treatment, evokes the power of memory, and the persistence of community. That persistence is also on view in Letitia Fraser’s two portraits of community members from her home in North Preston. Money Coming In (2018) and Bills to Pay (2018) depict two young men making similar hand gestures, part of the non-verbal language of her home, painted on patterned textiles in homage to her community’s quilting tradition.
As the exhibition makes clear, realism reaches beyond technique or subject matter, and it is too rich an artistic approach to be dismissed as simply conservative, or even commercial. Representation (which is really what most of us mean by realism), is a tool among many, and is as effective as its wielder. Whatever merit a tool may have on its own, it is the results we judge. In the mid-1950s Alex Colville described himself as a conceptual artist, a term few now would equate with realism. But he had a serious point to make. His paintings were as much about thinking as they were seeing.
So were Christopher Pratt’s. Exit, his deadpan mediation on life and death, reminds me of a later, unapologetically conceptual artwork: Kelly Mark’s Exist (2009), an altered exit sign, which, in an equally deadpan manner, joins Exit in suggesting that just our being may well be the most mysterious and magical part of reality. Ultimately, realism’s reach is as far as the imagination of the artist will take it.