One of the things to keep in mind when looking at visual art is the need to parse out the difference between the objects we see and the actual subject at hand. More often than not, the objects captured in a painting are merely visual metaphors for the grander themes they mean to convey. This is definitely the case when you look at the beautiful forest scenes in Ward Schell’s Undergrowth.
These images, which are currently on exhibition at the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, have a particular relationship to art history. With his well-executed images of Fairy Island, Schell traces out his artistic lineage. At once, these works relate Saskatchewan’s art history to the broader trends of modernist painting in Northern Europe. When considered, this relationship pulls forth weighty considerations and more profound experiences than these tranquil images would initially suggest.
By focusing his artistic attention on the specific subject of Fairy Island, Schell’s work simultaneously draws attention to the important role of the nationally renowned painter Ernest Lindner and the momentous artistic legacy of the Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus.
Fairy Island houses Lindner’s studio – a Provincial Heritage Property – that served as his artistic centre. Linder, a proficient landscape painter who had a 30-year career teaching art at the Saskatoon Technical Collegiate Institute, influenced art making in the province and country in a profound way. The nature and focus of his work have left a mark on the content of Schell’s images within this exhibition, determining its emphasis on the forest floors of this Northern Saskatchewan location.
The work of the remote Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, along with the Emma Lake Artist Workshops it hosted, served to shape the province’s art history and attached its art activity to the greater North American context. This campus location, near Prince Albert and on Emma Lake, drew in significant players in Modern art history. The likes of Barnett Newman, Clement Greenberg, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd came to this location. Their influence and encouragement, through these popular workshops, gave shape to the artists of the province and linked their history and work to the prodigious and significant body of modern art known as The New York School.
It is, however, Undergrowth’s relation to the aesthetic history of Europe that is the most illuminating regarding the exhibition’s significance.
The fact that this Moose Jaw-based artist finds inspiration and aesthetic direction from Vincent Van Gogh is an established fact. In addition to Ernest Lindner, Schell is on record for declaring the Dutch painter as a defining muse. Schell has studied the work and writing of this famed modernist painter and he has literally followed in the footsteps of Van Gogh. Numerous trips have taken Schell throughout Europe and have also delivered him to the French region of Arles in order to paint en plein air (“in the open air”) like his aesthetic mentor.
Ann H. Murray, in discussing the aesthetics of Van Gogh postulates that it was his religious background that conditioned his attitudes toward nature and its role in the creative process. She suggests that his theological background had a direct impact on his theory of both art and nature. In her article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Murray points out that his views of landscape painting were contrary to many of his colleagues. She indicates that, unlike the French Post-Impressionist painters with whom he corresponded frequently, Van Gogh worked from an actual model of nature rather than working from the imagination. In his thinking, he resisted their pleas to abandon the real world as his artistic starting point. She also explains that, by the early 1880s, Van Gogh “had turned to nature as his sole source of spiritual fulfillment and admittedly tried to express such feelings in his art.” This explains why the Dutch artist so rarely painted religious themes, focusing his attention on landscapes and on portraits of the simple people who lived in harmony with nature.
Despite his move away from formal religious practice, Van Gogh used aspects of nature to give emphasis to specific notions of spirituality. There is, unsurprisingly, a spirit of the Vanitas tradition within his work. This Dutch tradition, which gives emphasis to the subject of the ephemeral nature of life by giving a painting’s attention to objects that are, simultaneously, present and fading, are evident in some of the works of Van Gogh. This is seen most prominently in his innumerable presentations of flowers in vases – the flowers being objects that will, inevitably, wilt and die. This subject of the transient nature of the given moment is replayed by his other paintings dedicated to flower beds and crops that are in bloom.
All these types of images capture a given sense of mortal time, suggesting the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all human goods and pursuits. In this sense, these types of images are moral tales warning that meaningfulness must transcend the objects we have, hold, see, and chase.
Like Van Gogh, Schell refuses to dislocate his aesthetic expression from actual models in nature. Like his mentor, this skilled contemporary artist also promotes and practices painting en plein air, preferring the ideal of exercising his substantive gift engulfed in the context of very nature he depicts whenever possible. And, also like his aesthetic guide, Schell admits he renders work as a manifestation of his profound experience of nature, suggesting it as a source of his deepest spiritual and aesthetic values.
This practice of painting from actual models of nature, and in the very context of it, alludes to a notion that something of deep value can be found within the actuality of nature and within the depictions that emerge directly from it. This philosophical approach lends a sacramental flavour to nature and to engaging Schell’s images of it.
Void of horizon lines, Schell’s images force the viewer’s gaze to the ground apart from the distractions of a broader landscape. The point of view within these works, similar to some of those in Van Gogh’s flowerbed imagery, is often impossible unless people were, indeed, laying on the ground or crouched down close to it. This absence of horizon line and the perspective achieved from a deprecating closeness to the ground forces an intimate gaze at the precise nature of the forest bed.
Having corralled the viewer into this intimate gaze, Schell presents a clear depiction of a cycle of birth and death. Within his images, the artist presents decomposing natural elements that are serving as fertilizer for the rich green vegetation emerging from it. In this very sense, allusions to an almost Eucharistic spirituality of nature are made. The fact that the objects presented suggest the symbolic and cognitive motifs of death and resurrection is not difficult to see. And, given this Eucharistic sensibility, there is a correlative suggestion that the viewer should (or at least could) be transformed through the experience of viewing itself.
Here the perspective points of the images, derived from closeness to the ground, take on an even greater nuance. The perspective points of the images allude to positions associated with prayer – a position of humity.
Like the Vanitas tradition of the cultural ethos of his mentor, Schell’s work suggests that our vain approaches to life should be brought low and that our haughty, self-serving ambitions should meet their end in order for us to connect to higher notions of human being. He suggests a humble cognitive posture that brings our attention to the very ground that will inevitably house our mortal bodies. In so doing, he offers the very hopeful message that, in doing so, we will find more transcendent and nobler ways of thinking and being.
Undoubtedly, Schell sees Fairy Island in a Eucharist sense through the influence of Van Gogh. To Schell, there is an aesthetic sacredness to nature in general and Fairy Island specifically. To him, that location allows him to tap into a history that is greater than himself. In addition, he believes that, when revered and contemplated upon, this plot of land brings forth a profound inspiration that, simultaneously, births and transcends his temporal images of it. Through this landscape, Schell seems to find a context for art history that simultaneously guides, engulfs, explains, and eludes him. While doing so, Schell brings forth beautiful and luminescent images that seem to have a glorious and expiring vision of the nature of reality itself hidden within them.
Undergrowth will be on exhibition in the Moose Jaw Museum
& Art Gallery until December 31, 2013
top image: Long Shadow (detail)
middle image: staircase
bottom image: Long Shadow