Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Painting For Landscape

Premonition/Vision  Tobermory

Peter Beckett: Painting for Landscape

 Thomson and the consequential members of the Group… tried to subdue the space not just in front but behind their heads. Theirs was not to be a replication made simply [visually] …. but an apprehension of sound and odour coming from the other nerve endings   
— Harold Town 

If there is one artistic concept from the past that needs revitalization in today’s world, “en plein air” is it.

Painting en plein air – or, painting “in the open air” – gained its most famous expression in the 1870s, with the French Impressionists. Freshly armed with the latest artistic arsenal of mass-produced tube paint, Monet, Degas, Cassatt and company burst forth from their studios and descended onto the streets, into domestic spaces and the countryside, eager to register the passing moments of atmosphere and light. The Impressionists were inspired by the concept of form being defined reflected light, by photography as well as the relatively new discoveries in colour perception. They were particularly interested in the theory that any hue is most accurately represented and intensified by making visible the hue’s complementary colour.  In Impressionist paintings, a cast shadow is not a neutral grey, but often contains a combination of complementary colour and reflected light. Their high-key colour, loose brushwork and thickly applied pigments were strikingly new.

Plein air painting of the Impressionist variety was also refreshing in its sociological timeliness. Its practitioners produced enduring visual metaphors that helped capture something of the new hectic bustle, social anxiety and class antagonisms that defined modern life under emergent industrial capitalism. While most of the Impressionists were not really political radicals, their art came to illustrate Marx’s famous dictum; with modernity, all things solid “melt into air.”

Arguably, many of the destabilizing conditions that defined late-19th century France are with us today — but with a different kind of urgency. Painting like an Impressionist today can seem pretty innocuous. What, after all, encapsulates the Sunday dilettante stereotype more than a plein air painter of gardens, rivers and forests?

Why is this?

We of the 21st century have become acclimatized to the technique and subject matter of Impressionism. The once radical visual cues of the modern plein air tradition are rendered insubstantial and commonplace by their routine appearance in reproduction, in the summer blockbuster exhibitions, or in the commodities of popular culture more generally. A Renoir pencil-case anyone?

So, is painting en plein air a done deal, its demise not worth much grief? Why not just leave the idea of making art in the out-of-doors to earnest hobbyists?

Why not?

Here’s why not. Never has the idea of being in the open air and making art, been more relevant than it is today. We in the early 21st century are not so estranged from the environmental forces of our planet that we can continue to ignore the obvious. The disjuncture between how the earth operates and self-regulates and how we live is monumental. Thankfully, our cities do not yet require the atmospheric protection of those huge domes popularized in science fiction ... but how different is that from central air conditioning? Dystopian sci-fi writers today can draw on the projections of this here-and-now for the most cynical takes on what we have to look forward to. 
It’s no longer the line between the natural world and the artist’s studio that differentiates a true en plein air practice from other modes of art making. We can and must, creatively revitalize what the expression en plein air means. By attaching it to those artistic practices engaged in expressing conscious concern for the natural world, and our rooted place on the planet we might add an element of hope.
What sort of artistic engagement am I thinking of?

Peter Beckett

Detail; Painting For Landscape 

What has me rethinking the idea of creative production en plein air are the painting-installations of the Walter’s Falls-based artist, Peter Beckett. Beckett’s paintings respond to his experience of the natural environment. His paintings are not so much objectified depictions of this environment as they are raw responses to it. By virtue of their having been created within, and in response to, a natural surround, the paintings seem to “work” outside. His paintings work as objects literally entwined with the world, not set apart from it, like traditional landscape painting. And his practice is revitalizing because it demonstrates a mode of plein air art production that has very clear contemporary resonance.

Beckett was born in Oakville and grew up in the country, just west of Toronto, at a time of the transition from small towns and the “family farm” to the relentless spread of subdivisions. This has given him a greater appreciation of the farmland, and natural areas of Grey County where he lives today. He has traveled and painted widely, with extensive travels through Europe, several winters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and more recently, considerable time spent on the Atlantic coast, in Rhode Island and on Martha’s Vineyard.

Since the early 1980s Beckett has developed a practice that is both firmly his own, and clearly steeped in at least two traditions - one obvious, the other emanating from beneath the surface. 

On the surface, he might seem to be yet another abstract painter with an expressionist bent.  He seems driven by a combination of existential angst and formalist repose. The traditional hallmarks of unchained individualism, spiritual becoming, and emotional purging appear throughout Beckett’s painting. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, early Philip Guston, and especially Franz Klein are here, along with admittedly cooler moments reminiscent of Larry Poons and Ross Bleckner. Beckett’s surfaces bear the bold signs of the mid-20th century halcyon days of abstraction – the broad brush strokes, push/pull, edge, field, movement, flatness/depth – and thus, on their own, appear to be resolutely self-referential abstract expressionism.


Painting For Landscape /Outside

But I reiterate “on the surface” because, despite the fact that Beckett has and continues to show his work within conventional gallery spaces, it is not so much the paintings alone that I find so captivating (although individually they are often beautiful), but their collective obedience to a centre of gravity outside the gallery walls. This shared nexus is none other than the elemental coyote-yipping world of trees, wind, moon and snow. Beckett’s creative process is fundamentally ignited by his experience of the outdoors. He writes about painting, as a means of getting beyond the ego and losing self-consciousness. The drips, blobs and brushstrokes of his paintings emerge as responses to the sights, sounds, scents and memories, of specific places, onsite in real time.

The paintings are not only entwined in nature, they are also intimately tied to each other in an almost genealogical way. In his “installations” the creative lineage, with one painting almost invariably overlapping onto another is apparent, however, these “sequences” are outside the customary time line. His “interconnectedness of all things” includes a kind of transcendence of time. Individual paintings may be more connected by geography, seasons and emotional tangents, one to another than they are by their place in a time sequence. While Beckett works on a number of paintings at the same time, some paintings pick up from where others have left off, others explore some particular aspect in more detail, while other paintings venture into completely new tangents as they emerge. Beckett’s paintings are always open for revision, open to further explore the tangent in which they had been moving.

While some paintings have lines that appear plotted, some are explosive in colour, while others are more purely monochromatic. Remarkably, there is an inexplicable sort of family resemblance in the way Beckett’s creative production just seems to flow. When Beckett “installs” an exhibition there is an attempt to recreate something of the “studio” and the interconnected moments of discovery that the individual paintings embody.
In any case, it makes little sense to think of any one of Beckett’s paintings as an isolated objet d’art; all finished works remain visually and conceptually connected.
Beckett’s idea of capturing “more than a visual record” indicates his conscious and revitalized engagement with the plein air painting tradition, even if he doesn’t name it. Beckett’s practice is really about documenting a world that he is enmeshed in. He writes:

“I see nature with its fabulous structures and infinite complexity as a source of my sense of visual order. The paintings reflect something of nature's own diversity in their colour, shapes and textures. However, there is an attempt to create more than a visual record; to include such things as the smell of the woods or the sound of the rain,"

While painting, experience does not wait for Beckett’s contemplation, but comes at him, and us, from all directions at once. This requires that our synapses fire on all cylinders in order to take it all in. Constancy and over-stimulation define the tempo and temper of Beckett’s work.

Beckett’s statement reveals a connection to Tom Thomson. Harold Town, in his introduction to David Silcox’s book on Tom Thomson describes the “apprehension of sound and odour,” in addition his fidelity to visual observation, which made him such an accomplished painter of plein air subjects. Town also speculates that had Thomson lived beyond 1917, he would have been one of Canada’s first abstract painters, and one of its best. In other words, Town thinks that the sort of attending to the senses required of true painting en plein air is an important precondition for, not a hurdle to, the development of a mature understanding of abstract painting. Beckett, I don’t think, would choose Town’s exact words to describe what he does. His purpose is not really to use painting to “subdue” the natural world around him. If anything, he draws upon his experiences of this world in order to infuse his painting with untamed natural animistic energy. But Beckett would like the idea that, as an artist, he processes “the space not just in front but behind” his head.

The best way to experience Beckett’s paintings is as installations, as part of the environments in which they were made. To this end, Beckett has brought everything from firewood to photo essays into his exhibitions to help place the paintings in the environmental context of their production. His is an art practice that is in a constant call-and-response dialogue with the planet itself. In a very unsentimental way it reminds us that we are connected to and are overwhelmingly subject to our environmental conditions. This is not a mere hippie truism. It is this fundamental link that will catch us off guard, should we choose to forget it.

Beckett’s painting-installations are, at their height, sublime and frighteningly raw. They remind us that, in the end, whether or not we heed it, nature will always have the last word. One precondition to realizing our place in the world is to, like Beckett, bask in its flow.

Andrew Kear

Associate Curator, Historical Art The Winnipeg Art Gallery

Former Assistant Curator
TomThomson Art Gallery. Owen Sound. Ont

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

water birds

The giant's heart softened 
as he remembered the years when 
spring failed to arrive in his garden.  
One of those dark years 
a wounded water-bird 
had returned mid-summer to find
the giant's pond frozen solid. 
The giant had brought the bird into the castle
and cared for it as it recovered
from a wounded wing 
and some injured ribs. 
When summer finally returned
and the water-bird had recovered 
the giant returned  to his garden.
The giant knelt down by the pond and
gently lowered the water-bird back into 
it's natural element and watched it swim away.

Monday, November 3, 2014

on anchor

With the anchor down
in a harbour amongst other vessels
he took the opportunity to go aloft to
see that all was well from

another perspective.

From the cross trees, 
envisioning the anchorage with 
the changing tide 
and possible wind shift, 
the game of chess came to mind.

In payment for his effort the cadmium sun 
did break through through mineral violet
and panes grey just as the rain began.

He was back on deck by the time the squall hit

The anchor rode groaned as vessel swung into 
the new wind direction and
the chaotic dance of difference began.

After a brief eternity 
the neighbouring boats all swung into the wind.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Schooner Agness & Dell

This is Captain John Gandy and his Newfoundland built, Agness & Dell out of Blue Hill Maine.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dead Boat Magazine,


"Before and After" Magazine

Friday, July 25, 2014

click on images to enlarge

the nature of blue

blue painting 66 x 80 inches, oil.
but remember,  it is what you see

addressing the taboos;
when Bill challenged Jack
to stop denying
the existence of gravity and
rather than taking it to the street
Jack went home and 
on behalf of gravity
reasserted  something of it's complex 
and  pulsing nature
but that was after he 
died of natural causes

plastic surgery discovery
I should have
ground her topsides 
freehand as well
at last 
a pleasant discovery 
about F R P..... fiber reinforced plastic
a paint scraper 
with a burr
will shape the surface of
day-old epoxy *
like your favourite plane set to take
the finest shaving from hardwood

if you like tools and complexity
boat work is just the thing

* mixed with
1 west 404 
2 cabosill
3 bubbles-

Sunday, July 20, 2014


there's a glitch
in the summer here
cool breeze 
through the trees
a signal to begin
bringing firewood in

an nod to Captain Nat Herreshoff and LF

to arrive at 
the daily pleasure of
what nature has in store
there's another "nature"
we must examine

the human 

breeds necessities
and questions 
careful observations
and looking for another perspective

exploration to 
share the discoveries
when trying to get words 
around an inclination
the shift 
from words 
to sound 
one more puzzle piece
falls into place
as yet another
"vain attempt at defining art"

without another perspective
from which to triangulate
how could we navigate
acquisition and maintenance 
of the necessities
our present location
good grinding tools, both 
electric and air drive
which have become 
difficult to find
the flow lines are beginning to
surround the form
as a perspective on sculpture
or mechanical kinetic 

which is having its influence on
the intuitive 

as the form expands
to the perspectives attached 
to an ancient pine board 
from an attic floor 
for a century

to the centuries 
when the pine grew 
up through
towering maples
near here

fluid dynamics
for me 
has nothing to do with numbers
but is rather 
the seeing of turbulence 
caused by few barnacles
and wrinkles
on the hull

without the perspective of
your nature 
you proceed 
as if on a

A friend who became a wooden flute maker
is grateful to the old black-smith 
who minded him while
turning glowing hot metal into implements 
while they waited for the school bus.

which brought to mind Rumi's words

"a while as want may be 
true self, I could not see
but heard it's name.
I, being self confined,
self did not merit
leaving self behind 
did self inherit."

Friday, July 4, 2014