"The Best Art In The World"
By ANDREA BELL, August, 2018
In 2010, Brandy Saturley went on a ten-day expedition through the Canadian Rockies, an adventure that resulted in a series of portraits of the landscape, to be titled ‘I See Mountains.’ Some of them refuse the traditional, horizontal landscape orientation of the canvas for a vertical canvas normally reserved for portraiture. The artist herself marks this year as a turning point in her career, from early to mature. And indeed, her earlier landscapes tended to focus on details cropped snap-shot like from the larger landscape. In ‘I See Mountains,’ specific Canadian peaks are named: Babel, Rundle, and Crowfoot, all located in Banff, Alberta; Mount Assiniboine found on the Great Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia; and Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, are only a few examples. In each portrait, the peak is centered, rising prominently from the surrounding landscape. Saturley’s earlier minute observations have given way to the expansiveness of the sublime. The enormity of the Canadian landscape is like a new Switzerland, the backdrop to a romantic voyage rather than an enlightening Grand Tour. Having grown up at the foot of the Rockies myself, I can attest to the power that towering peaks have over the human psyche. Confronting the enormity of the landscape has become a crucial aspect in Canadian identity, and a thread that is woven throughout Saturley’s work.
Extending her investigation into the symbolic landscape has lead Saturley to explorations of the diversity of Canadian identities to which this symbolic landscape is a backdrop, particularly in her ongoing series ‘People of Canada Portrait Project’ and in her acclaimed ‘Canadianisms.’ The ‘People of Canada Portrait Project’ was begun in 2014 in honor of Canada 150, which marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. For the project, Saturley used social media and the internet as a tool for connecting to a diverse audience of subjects. The artist solicited selfies and portraits from Canadian couples – broadly defined to include “special relationships, friendships, family, co-workers, events or serendipitous meetings.” The original images selected as reference points for portraits are still displayed in a stream on the project’s website (Peopleofcanada.ca). Through interviews, process photos, and short films the original subjects of the photographs become part of the project’s archive, material for future excavation into how people define themselves as Canadian. One theme that the artist noticed in the interviews was the emphasis on kindness and being of service articulated by many Canadians, attributes to which any and all can aspire.
By choosing their own photographs, Saturley’s subjects participate in their own self-representation. Yet they also cede control to the artist, who invents a landscape intended to amplify the relationship between the two subjects depicted. Through this integration of portraiture and landscape, she reasserts the importance of place in the formation of identity and in feelings of belonging. For example, Welcome All Souls, is a portrait of two sisters who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad as small children. In searching for a symbolic landscape, Saturley recalls being on a beach hike, when she noticed a property line. Not sure whether to proceed, she glanced up and saw a piece of plywood nailed to a tree, with the words “welcome all souls.” Saturley describes the tree in the painting: “[It] is a native tree to Vancouver Island called the ‘Arbutus’ and it is a survivor that grows on the rockiest of coastlines, in high salty sea storms, surviving through drought. It is an extremely hard wood and will twist itself into the most surreal shapes in order to survive. Some trees carry years of people’s carvings in their bark, because of the smooth texture they invite those ‘initial leaving’ types, they are the ‘graffiti’ tree of the west coast, yet they survive with their scars.”
Saturley’s well-regarded ‘Canadianisms’ series, while sometimes still grounded in the landscape, also references famous works of art, reinterpreting them to speak about the construction of Canadian identity. Many of the old masters are identifiable and include Jacques-Louis David, René Magritte, and Grant Wood. By evoking these famous compositions in her exploration of the cultural symbols of Canada, the series reminds us that cultural identity has always been constructed through a symbolic visual language, and that we may play an active role by recognizing it. Thus, David’s French Revolutionary hero and perpetrator of the Reign of Terror, Jean-Paul Marat is replaced by the Oilers’ legendary defenseman Steve Smith, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s cow skulls become hockey masks. The “Canadianisms” series has already toured in both Edmonton and Calgary, and has garnered the artist notoriety as the voice of Canadian Pop Art.
In her most recent work, Saturley has turned once again to the landscape, never really having left. Her new, visionary paintings collage different, unexpected elements of Canadiana rendered in her characteristic pop aesthetic. They oscillate between a graphic realism used for Canada’s famous mountain peaks or views of forest lakes, and the abstractness of the colorful, even psychedelic backgrounds. The sincerity of their celebration keeps them from tripping over into kitsch. Instead they are otherworldly and transportive, playful and humorous. One work from the series, Balance, of 2017 is currently on view as part of the Society of Canadian Artist’s 50th Open International Exhibition being held in Toronto at the Todmorden Mills Papermill Gallery until August 19, 2018. WM
Andrea Bell is an art historian, critic and writer. She received her PhD from NYU and has held fellowships in both Europe and the United States, including at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Drawing Institute. Based in New York City, Andrea teaches Art History and Criticism at Parsons School of Design
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