Pat Service's recent landscape paintings may startle some of her admirers. Her new works are among her strongest and most personal to date, but anyone expecting current versions of the pictures with which Service has established her reputation - freely handled images of places instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Vancouver and its surroundings as typical of that part of the world - will be surprised. Over the past decade and a half it has seemed self-evident that even though she was never interested in treating her motifs realistically - any more than she was attracted to conventionally picturesque or "paintable" B.C. subjects - Service has been profoundly engaged by the character of the region where she was born and raised, and where she continues to live. Everything from her home turf's apparently untouched nature to its comfortable civility provided her with points of departure for energetic canvases. Some of her most ambitious pictures have been about the light-filled planes of the meeting of sky and sea, about the casual geometry of driftwood-strewn beaches, or about the colour harmonies (or disharmonies) of ornamental foliage and flowers in Vancouver's lovingly tended gardens and urban parks.

Service's most recent works, however, are clearly about another kind of terrain, a different locale. Many of her new pictures depend on confrontations not of vast, cloud-filled skies with the reflective, unstable surface of the sea, but with an endless stretch of dry land cultivated plains dotted with sloughs and thickets of brush. We're on the Prairies, not on the Coast. It's not a wholly unfamiliar landscape to Service. A veteran of several of the celebrated Emma Lake Workshops, held in Northern Saskatchewan, she has painted on the plains before and come to terms with their seemingly featureless expanses and subtleties of light. It's clear from the vigour of Service's Prairie pictures and the freshness of their structure that she found changing locations, albeit temporarily, to have been provocative, yet what is most notable about her recent works is not their nominal subject-which is, after all, simply a trigger for the artist's ability to create painterly equivalents for perceptions - but their authority and resonance.

In her recent pictures, Service's touch seems broader, bolder, more urgent than ever; skies, fields, and clusters of trees threaten to dissolve into rapid scribbles of paint. Service's colour which has always tended toward the expressive rather than the descriptive, seems even more unexpected and autonomous. A sky can be mint green or yellow without implying ominous weather, dawn, or sunset. Fields and trees can be mauve-grey, dull red, heliotrope, or blazing yellow without suggesting that autumn foliage is intended. In
some pictures, strokes of clear, brilliant hues float against relatively naturalistic blues and greens, almost wrenching free of the demands of observed reality to set up lively, independent colour rhythms.

None of this is new to Service's landscape painting. For years, she has been preoccupied with both the closely observed and the willfully invented, declaring, in her best work, her double allegiance to perceived reality and private impulses. Her most convincing compositions have firm abstract underpinnings, no matter how much they remind us of familiar settings, while conversely, no matter how audacious her colour or how uninhibited her paint handling, she remains responsive to the specifics of place, of season, and of time of day. Service's recent Prairie landscapes simply intensify these qualities. If her free-wheeling gestures forcefully remind us of the artist's presence as maker and as witness, they also evoke particular textures of the landscape and the instability of changing weather and shifting light. If the buoyant chromatic counter-point of floating strokes reminds us of the artifice of painting, it also anchors Service's most outrageous colouristic inventions, making them seem perfectly plausible as comments on the world around us, so that a lemon sky, far from seeming improbable, becomes emblematic of some utterly convincing but unidentifiable quality of light.

In a sense, this equivalence of the natural world and apparently unnatural colours should not surprise us. The most improbable hues in Service's palette can be found in nature; if justification were needed, their intensity could be explained by the eye-grabbing brilliance of flowers in the short Prairie summer. Nonetheless, Service feels she is now less interested in local colour than she has been in the past. "I've been reading more about colour and colour theory recently," she says. "And I'm putting colour on differently. I'm layering it more. These paintings take much longer to finish - six months to a year, sometimes." That these carefully crafted canvases preserve an air of immediacy and spontaneity has something to do with their genesis. "I looked hard and did some drawings on the spot, with some colour in them," Service says, "and I did some watercolours on the spot. Doing the watercolours was a way of looking and remembering a place. Then I would be in the studio the next day, so it was still very vivid to me."

Service acknowledges that some of the freedom of her recent works owes something to her change of subject. "The landscape in Saskatchewan doesn't have a lot of things in it," she says, "so it's easier to be abstract and loose. Maybe that's why there are so many good Saskatchewan landscape painters. I hadn't been in Saskatchewan in several years, so it was fresh for me."

The real issue, of course, is not what provoked a particular series of pictures, but the result. Whatever the source of Service's recent works, their strength resides not only in the way the artist addresses questions of fidelity to experience - of all kinds, not just visual - but in how she addresses "purely" painterly issues. Whatever their immediate motivation, whatever the basis for theft imagery, Service's recent landscapes are some of her most inventive, assured, and adventurous. In the end, that is what matters - not their connection, however strong or tenuous, to a place.


New York

Karen Wilkin writes on art for The New Criterion and is the author of books on Cezanne, Morandi and Stuart Davis.


© Karen Wilkin (used with permission)