Drawn to the Edge

Drawn to the Edge

Commentary - Charles Killam

There's more than one way to skin a cat and you're probably aware that there are several ways to go about painting from nature. One way is to carefully apply colours and lines and shading just so, until an image appears that would be similar to what a camera might see. We think of photographs as being "real", for some reason, so we like to call this type of painting "Realism". Cameras don't see with brush-strokes, and Realists often smooth and polish their paint so guilefully that the surface of the canvas virtually disappears and we are fooled into looking right through it, into a sleek illusion of reality. 

There are Realists in art, but we don't have to talk about them. 

There's another approach, also related to photography, but which has more to do with paint. Pictures can be knitted out of many conspicuous strokes and dabs of paint, each corresponding to the sort of light the eye would see coming from that particular area of the scenery. All those bits add up to form a kind of dotty (furry!) field which doesn't trick you into thinking it isn't paint on canvas, but which nonetheless gives you a somewhat convincing snap-shot image of nature, especially if you stand back a ways. Of course you've been around the block and you know this is called Impressionism.

Impressionism has long been a major current in representational art, and is an important aspect of the work of Pat Service.

Cézanne was a sort of Impressionist for a while, until he starred noticing that nature seemed full of "architectural' clues which could be manipulated and re-emphasized by the artist to construct stronger, more cohesive pictures. Rather than rendered, nature could be referenced. A realistic or accurate image of nature, its quick surface appearance, became less important than how the painting could be structured Things could be made bigger or smaller, pushed forward or back, made brighter or duller, even painted from slightly different angles at the same time, according to how the artist felt about them, or understood them, or according to what the picture seemed to need aesthetically. Logic was allowed to loosen her tie.

The Postimpressionism of Cézanne, with its emphasis on the essential structure of things rather than on their momentary surface appearances, moved painting dramatically away from photographic effects. Painting began to speak its own somewhat abstracted language, placing new demands on both the artist and the viewer in terms of how to "see". With the increased effort comes increased rewards, for a painting can be thousands of times more interesting than the natural vista it alludes to.

Let us just skin one more cat before we turn to Pat. While Cézanne and the other Postimpressionists set the stage for Cubism and then Abstraction, some artists have always preferred to work from nature. After Cézanne new liberties were taken with structure, paint handling and colour. Painting became more eccentric, personal, bold and inventive with the Fauves (Matisse, Derain, Rouault etc.), and sometimes rather excessive, mannered and unpleasant with the Expressionists.

In the Fauve approach to painting, the artist tends to take a direct and deceptively child-like way of referencing nature. The colour and application of physical paint can be quite expressive and free, and although there's no way to define Fauvism firmly (the word means "wild beast") it amounts to a sort of Ioosening up, in a personal and almost "folksie" way, of the painter's prerogative (in contrast with Impressionism and Postimpressionism which both have, relatively speaking a methodical carefulness about them). This led to the joyful art of Matisse on the one hand, and to brooding angst-ridden German Expressionism on the other. 

There's a lot of Neo-expressionism around these days, but most of it is figurative. Running through our landscape and still-life traditions there is, here and there, a wonderful brightly coloured thread of Fauve, and along with Impressionism and an attention to structure, it stands out as a delightful component of the art of Pat Service.

The first thing that strikes one about the paintings of Pat Service is how good they are. The second thing is how much range there is in her work. From folksie animal pictures to Matisse-like and Bonnard-like still-lifes, she offers landscapes that weave together and alternately emphasize Impressionist, Postimpressionist and Fauve approaches. From fresh and playful to moody and serious, you can always see that the liberties she takes with her subject matter lead to strong and surprising pictures. Many painters keep to a tighter range for fear of appearing inconsistent, but the unmistakable consistency of Pat's work lies in the way she grabs what she wants from nature and performs her own peculiar alchemy on it.

It took me a couple of years to make the bridge between the furthest poles in Pat's paintings. I loved the bold clarity and cheerful sense of colour in some of the crazy, good-humoured ones, but the smokey, moody, more Impressionistic landscapes were harder for me to nail down aesthetically. I kept looking, and gradually began to see connections. If you squint you'll see them faster (or dim the lights slightly). You'll often see the landscapes breaking up into component parts, with curious tensions and rhythms, more like the way a Cézanne is built than, say, a Monet (even if the paint handling sometimes is closer to Monet). The structures are often quirky and sudden, giving the eye increasing pleasure the more time it spends, but never gimmicky or mannered. 

Generally speaking, while Pat's landscapes, stress a blend of Impressionist and Postimpressionist concerns, her still-lifes and animal pictures tend to be more Fauve. The colour in them is brighter and less naturalistic, the rendering almost "primitive", and the handling of space and perspective flatter and more decorative (in the good sense of that term). These paintings exude charm, but they are much more than just charming. The removal of almost any "item" from the picture throws the whole thing off, so well-balanced and constructed is the layout (this can be tested by holding up your hand to block out different parts). But even in the still-lifes and animals, Pat sometimes opts to use a flickering field of brush-strokes to support the scattered objects in a kind of web, thus bringing in Impressionist and Postimpressionist techniques once again. As you look at all of these paintings you will repeatedly discover, here and there, in varying proportions, the three stylistic strands of her weave. 

Have you ever stood in front of one of those tacky little paintings done by some mediocre practitioner, and wondered what exactly is the problem here? The sky and trees and whatnot may seem adequately done but for some reason the thing just doesn't "feel" good. (Perhaps the colour is out of tune or arbitrary, the paint handling pedestrian or slick, the subject matter quaint and conventional.) One of the demands of the art of good painting is that the paint and subject have to be pushed and struggled with to some degree, because art is by nature exploratory. Of course some good paintings come our with a lot less struggle than others, but they always have to be found, claimed out of the partial unknown. And when you stand before a work of art you will find approximately what the painter found (or didn't find, as the case may be). 

Pat Service is one of those artists who regularly dips into that place just beyond the headlight, wrestles with her subject and paint in a personal way, and offers us the results. There is so much to look at in her canvases because they give so much of how they were won. You can feel it, and the feeling is not neutral.

Sometimes you can see where she put something in, then later found it had to be painted out, moved, or altered a bit. Often the paint is scrubbed and layered in certain passages, revealing the "history" of her search for answers. The fact that the evidence of these struggles is still visible does not connote lack of finish or lack of craftsmanship, rather it indicates the real, honest workings of art, and the paintings are by far the richer for it. 

So too with the range of the work. Pat Service searches, separates, recombines, and revises the three traditions of representational painting that inform her style. Impressionist, Postimpressionist and Fauve. There doesn't seem to be any possibility that some final balance will he struck, that the resolution of one picture could dictate the terms of subsequent pictures. Art is never resolved. And in a world where so much is being standardized, cornered by market forces and technology, where aesthetic impoverishment and complacency abound, there are, fortunately, still paintings like these quietly bucking the trend.

Charles Killam 1992

Charles Killam is a painter living in Vancouver, B.C. Canada

© the author (used with permission)