Kim Dorland: Nemophilia
September 8-October 14, 2017
#110 - 525 Great Northern Way Vancouver, BC V5T 1E1
By KAREN MOE, OCT. 2017
These landscape paintings are gorgeous—and yet there is something wrong with them. Paint sticks out in moldering lumps, there are a lot of squiggles, and the palette is more Futurama than forest. These woodland mediations are verging on hysterical. As a series of nature paintings, there is definitely something fishy going on.
Kim Dorland is taking on the British Columbia, Canada rainforest. The artist is well known for his lush, excessive impastos of Canadian landscapes; however, unlike his earlier work of Canada’s more peopled forests of the eastern provinces, his latest series Nemophilia (Forest Lover) features paintings where human presence is conspicuously absent. During our interview in his Vancouver studio, Dorland described his relationship with the West Coast wilds:
"This forest is overpoweringly, ridiculously beautiful, and yet it overflows with both awe and fear. It’s also the most terrifying wilderness I have ever been around, because this is truly the wilderness where you can twist your ankle or make a wrong turn and no one will find you. You will just die and decay."
Beneath the fiesta of jolly globs and swoops of paint, there is dread lurking in Dorland’s undergrowth. The jubilation that calls out to the viewer as they enter the exhibition at Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery is fed by an underlying anxiety. Nemophilia performs our contradictory relationship with the wilderness in how we love, fear, and destroy it all at the same time.
Dorland revealed that not only is the wilderness in British Columbia psychologically overwhelming, it is also very intimidating to paint. He described his emotional and painterly response as trying to represent “a very sinister Eden,” and it is this challenge of painting the extremes of good and evil that drives the bombardment of gesture, pigment and paint. The artist’s flurry is infectious; the viewer is immediately seduced by the hottest of pinks, Marilyn Monroe mauves, grape Kool-Aid purples and the playful, almost goofy, applications. We want to dive right into these fantastic, celebratory landscapes; the paint is so luscious we could almost lick it off of the canvas and it would probably taste of lime popsicles and bubblegum ice cream.
In keeping with the sorry fate of Eden’s original sinners, however, we have been duped. In his BC paintings, Dorland paints, for the first time, imposing barricades to our entry into both the subject matter and the painting itself. As we approach, start to move in, we can’t. There is too much. The artist has blocked our way with heavy-handed planes of Douglas Fir bows, scribbled heights of Salal, topped off by a sheer grey shape that is un-scalable and yet cruelly continues to taunt with the beauty beyond, only to thwart us again with a slap of black. In one such work, if we are able to get passed the menacing and gloopy cedar, we can sneak onto an alluring orange path; however, we soon find ourselves face to face with hot pink squiggles that have morphed from sugar to rage. The artist forces us to see how we have lost our way—we have been expelled, once again, by what could have been paradise.
Paradoxically, in some of the forest paintings, Dorland represents Western culture’s relationship with the wilderness by combining oil, acrylic, and pastel crayon with inkjet iPad drawings. He explained to me how he wanted to “see where the two processes could intersect. My work is always about collapsing different things together until they make this weird whole.” The flat digital backgrounds result in horizons that are more from the world of Dr. Seuss than a traditional landscape painter’s realistic renderings of sky and cloud. On top of this digital foundation, Dorland constructs his woods with anything from tiny detail brushes to four-inch house paint brushes, any number of scrapers and pallet knives, and a cake-decorating bag to get those long interrupted--albeit often twitchy--squeezes. Indeed, founded upon the virtual world of digital technology, Dorland’s forest paintings enact Western culture’s metaphysical detachment from the nature. Our feet are no longer on the ground we are from.
Dorland sees himself as not only the creator of his painted worlds, but also as a participant. In Nemophilia, he plays the part of ‘the Nemophile,’ otherwise known as the Bearded Hipster or Lumbersexual. Dorland explains, “I truly am a lover of the woods, but on the other hand, I am also a city boy.” The artist’s real life narrates the cultural contradictions that his art conversely exposes through their combination. As the representative Nemophile, Dorland is wearing the stereotypical Canadian mac jacket, toque, and, of course, the outdoorsy beard. However, he continued, when one is committed to the urban lumberjack fashion trend “it’s questionable whether the man has even been in the forest at all.”
The gatekeeper of the Equinox exhibition is the ever-elusive Sasquatch, who is also played by Dorland, and is a recurring character in the artist’s oeuvre. In contrast with the lumberjack poseur, the Sasquatch is in the forest all the time. However, like the Nemophile who may never even go into the forest, the Sasquatch exists so deeply within it that it is questionable as to whether he has ever been there as well. Is the scary simian watching us as we wander, wide-eyed and naive, and we are destined to suffer a grisly death? Is he ready to run away, leaving us to continue living the terror ingrained in just not knowing?
However, Dorland’s painted rendition of the Sasquatch is not a prized sighting dashing enigmatically through the trees. Instead, he stands lunky and lost, in full view, his elusive status deflated like a ruptured blow-up toy. As a fugitive captured, he has been forced out of his imperious enigma to feed the insatiable appetite of the human gaze. Dorland’s self-sasquatch stands despondent and defeated. Nevertheless, as he obediently greets us, we are happy to see him, a vanquished threat in Dorland’s zoo of pathos and paint.
Dorland told me that he is not an overtly political artist, that he never begins a project with an agenda. However, as his art is a direct response to his environment, the artist’s political concerns inevitably enter the work. At the end of our interview, Dorland told me:
"I think that right now there is no more important subject than the landscape. It represents this sort of zeitgeist of paranoia, fear, stress, and anxiety. The paintings are beautiful because I am a painter and I want to make things beautiful, but I hope that there is something else in there, and for me that’s not painting a clear-cut forest or a forest on fire."
Instead of reiterating images of environmental destruction that are easily overlooked in their ubiquity, Dorland chooses to delight and repulse us at the same time. Like a birthday party finally given to a neglected child, the joy strains with too much. The guests grin in response to the excessive display of love, but there is something beneath the surface that is not quite right. Bushwhacking amidst Dorland’s painted tangles, we find that the sumptuous surfaces of Nemophilia both conceal and articulate a proclamation of doom—too much forest love, too late. WM
Karen Moe is an art critic, visual and performance artist, author and feminist activist. Her work focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism. Her art criticism has been published internationally in magazines, anthologies and artist catalogues in English and Spanish and she has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. She is the founder of the Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine and the blog The Logical Feminist. She is the author of Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor 2022. Karen lives in Mexico City and British Columbia, Canada.
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