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Wylie: Alexander seeks places beyond human footprint

David Alexander, Entering the Beginnings of the Big Dipper’s Horizon, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 172.7 cm, 60 x 68 in. Collection of the artist. - Yuri Akuney/contributor
David Alexander, Entering the Beginnings of the Big Dipper’s Horizon, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 172.7 cm, 60 x 68 in. Collection of the artist.
— image credit: Yuri Akuney/contributor

Canadian artist David Alexander relocated to Kelowna from Saskatoon in the summer of 2003, just in time for the devastating Okanagan Mountain Park fire that destroyed many homes and made national news.

His luck with decision making is not always bad, however, and he has successfully worked and painted here for the past eight years.

Interestingly enough, although Alexander works with the landscape, he has not painted much of the Okanagan, per se (with the exception of some of its southerly, arid places), but prefers travelling to remote and wild locations with as little of the human footprint as possible for his ideas and subjects.

Born in Vancouver, Alexander grew up on the west coast and had been living in the Kootenays before his move to Saskatchewan in 1980. Inspired by the other participants at an artist’s workshop at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan that he attended in 1979, Alexander then moved to study at the University of Saskatchewan to obtain his MFA, and continued to live in Saskatoon for 23 more years.

The challenge of learning to paint the prairie was a daunting one, especially until it came to him one day that the prairie landscape is much more about the sky than the land. From then on he was off and running. He also explored the natural world in other settings, such as the Arctic, Iceland, Greenland, and northern Scotland. And every summer he has hiked and sketched in the Rockies and in the mountains of British Columbia.

In celebration and acknowledgement of his career to date, the Kelowna Art Gallery has organized a survey show of his work, spanning three decades of painting, which opened this month and will go on a national tour next year. This exhibition is one of an informal series of solo shows with major publications on an Okanagan-based artist that the Kelowna Art Gallery began in 2010 with its retrospective exhibition of the work of Joice M Hall, curated by Patricia Ainslie.

In a major coup for the Kelowna Art Gallery, the Alexander show is accompanied by a six-authored book on his work, published for the gallery by McGill-Queen’s University Press in Montreal. Copies of the book are for sale at the Kelowna Art Gallery and are also in wide distribution.

Its authors include the award-winning Canadian writer Sharon Butala, who shares Alexander’s love and, as she puts it, connoisseurship of nature; the late and much respected and admired art writer, Gilbert Bouchard, of Edmonton; a former curator of the Kelowna Art Gallery, now working in Ontario, Ihor Holubizky; the nationally known master interviewer of artists, Robert Enright; myself and, from Iceland where Alexander travelled in 1999 and 2002, writer, curator and former museum director, Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson.

The exhibition includes a broad selection of some of the artist’s most important canvasses created since the mid 1980s up until 2010. Alexander’s works are large, bold, brilliantly colourful and show a huge variety of paint handling and application methods. He is a virtuoso of scale, shape and mark-making in relationship to one another and to the picture and its overall size as a whole.

In our smaller gallery space is an installation of small works on paper and small wood panel paintings that give viewers a representative taste of the artist’s work on a more diminutive scale. Interspersed with these large and small works are cases displaying Alexander’s sketchbooks from his various research trips, opened up to varying pages over the duration of the exhibition’s run.

The gallery has organized a community landscape-a-thon in tribute to Alexander’s show, having invited local residents to submit postcard-sized landscapes that are on display in the gallery. If enough people contribute work, the gallery will apply for world-record status for the most works of art in one place at a time on this scale and theme.

Mid-winter blues got you feeling low? Come to see this show and be transported to other climes, and into an experience of an intense relationship with the natural world, depicted in visual form. The exhibition runs until March 25.

Liz Wylie is the curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

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