Okanagan-based artist, David Alexander, opens show at the Kelowna Art Gallery
Gaze at the rich layers of oil paint on David Alexander's canvass and you may miss the human forms his friend Adalsteinn Ingólfsson sees, but the unsettling beauty of these landscapes will haunt those who dare to really look through his window on the north.
With mountain tops posed as though swinging through a funnel cloud and waterways so richly hued with shimmers of light the scene above begs imagination, the gallery's first new exhibition of the year proves extraordinary.
And it should be. Alexander had to pare down 4000 images to achieve this seamless demonstration of collaboration over his visions of absolute solitude.
This show, The Shape of Place, offers the artist a unique opportunity to step outside notoriety's box and showcase another side to his talents.
"People don't generally know that I do little tiny pieces, three inches by three inches," he said a few minutes before the exhibition opened last week. "Success of a tiny work has to be monumental, not in scale but monumental in vision. In this little tiny piece, every mark is representative. So a tiny picture that really works is as important as a 30-foot long painting."
The show includes two rooms, one with smaller works and the other a showcasing the medium-sized and large canvases he's known for, punctuated by glimpses of the sketchbooks from which the work begins.
This is the culmination of seven years of the internationally renown landscape artist's work, four years of collaboration with Kelowna Art Gallery curator Liz Wylie, curator for the show, and countless hours of discussion on nature, creativity and the nature of nature and creativity.
"I think for me the landscape is really the premise for me to look, for me to observe, to see how things really are and how things are romanticized," said Alexander, who freely admits he's stuck with the lens.
Even his portraits—the work he never shows—turn out looking like people cast as landscape and, while he doesn't shy away from trying new perspectives, he's come to understand this is his worldview.
in an essay penned for a trade book she edited to go with the show, Wylie credits his eye on his upbringing.
"Did it first start and take hold in David Alexander when he was a boy, motoring up and down the islands off the North West Coast in a tugboat with his father?" she asks, adding the "steady diet of Emily Carr" clearly helped.
Alexander's mother and grandmother were painters and his mother, by chance, befriended the niece of Emily Carr's great confidant Ira Dilworth, bringing the painter and her influence into Alexander's world from the time he started creating. One look at his trees and the great B.C. art legend's style is immediately evident and one can imagine how hours of staring at the ever-changing landscape pass by from a boat would also leave its mark.
Six colleagues and scholars lend their thoughts to the book, including Ingólfsson, curator and art historian from Iceland who is credited with inviting Alexander to his country, the territory which consumes a vast portion of the show.
Ingólfsson first noticed his work in a Border Crossings magazine article and was struck by how much the Canadian work, primarily done on the vast scrubland of the prairies, felt like scenes of his own surroundings. He sat down and wrote the artist a letter and the result, more than a decade later, appears to have pleased him.
"Alexander seemed to hint at the absolute 'otherness' of the Icelandic landscape. For someone such as myself, who thinks civilization's influence on the natural world is overrated, this is a heartening conclusion," he writes in the last line of his essay, An "Other" Iceland: Musings on the Alexander Landscape.
In interview, Alexander's political leanings suggest he probably aims for such a conclusion. While he's never seen a place he wouldn't go—"I like garbage dumps," he says when asked—he tries to go to those places few will venture, noting they're the last truly exotic places on earth.
Yet he is not so naive as to believe this will remain the case. With the melting of the Northwest Passage, governments now have access to natural resources worthy of fighting over, he points out; and whether it be a spot in the core of downtown Vancouver or oil in the northern oceans, Alexander knows land, and it's resources, come at a premium.
"The landscape itself is a very fought over thing. It's sought of. People want a part of nirvana. People want a part of this pristine place. People want a view," he said. "So we encroach on it continually, but it doesn't mean that there's places that aren't trodden on."
When he wasn't packing food around northern tundra to catch glimpses of such spaces, he would let the landscape come to him. Alexander moved to Saskatchewan to pursue a master's degree and spend 23 years in the province, where he says great beauty comes to those who wait.
"It's an extremely diverse, dynamic place, but you have to stick around to see what's there," he said.
Living in the cities, you go to the mountains, but on the prairies everything comes to you, he told the audience at the show opening. On one wall is the perfect example. A painting of a storm cloud so large it covered the whole of Saskatoon shows a sky that offers up untold mysteries of ever-changing shape and colour. The work was originally bought by his dealer in Toronto and Alexander smiled broadly as he told his audience he bought it back just for this show.
In addition to essays by former CBC art commentator Robert Enright and fiction author Sharon Butala, the book includes an essay by the much-loved freelance journalist, art critic and activist Gilbert Bouchard, who passed away during its making.
"It was a gift," Alexander said, noting his team had to track down Bouchard's mother for permission to edit and include the work in the book.
David Alexander's The Shape of Place will show in the Kelowna Art Gallery through Mar. 25 before going on national tour in 2013. The book is available for sale through the gallery and online at www.kelownaartgallery.com/about/store