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John McKee, Untitled, 1990, Acrylic on Canvas , Art Gallery of Alberta Collection
Featuring works from the Art Gallery of Alberta’s collection, the exhibition State of Nature examines representations of nature in painting as a major and recurring theme in contemporary art in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. Recognizing the strength of this practice as a key marker of regional identity, this exhibition considers these landscapes as part of a long tradition of modern landscape painting that has its roots in the 19th century.
The influences from the 19th century that this exhibition traces range from Romanticism to Realism to Impressionism. The works of artists David Alexander, Gregory Hardy and Peter von Tiesenhausen, for example, suggest emotional and spiritual responses to the natural world, and in doing so recall the legacy of Romanticism in Western art. French writer Charles Baudelaire’s review of the 1846 Paris Salon exhibition describes this approach: “Romanticism and modern art are one and the same thing, in other words: intimacy, spirituality, colour, yearning for the infinite, expressed by all the means the arts possess.”
While some of the works in this exhibition align themselves with the feeling suggestive of Romanticism, others are more closely aligned with Realism and Impressionism. The artist John McKee pursues a more dispassionate representation of the natural world. Concerned with the possibilities of the medium of painting over the subject matter before him, McKee follows in the footsteps of Monet and Pissarro. He draws the viewer’s eye to the surface of the work through the individual brush strokes that make up the painting. In his words: “I never see the subject, just paint the marks.”
Other artists walk an even thinner line between abstraction and landscape painting: in his later landscapes, painter Norman Yates moves away from the suggestion of depth and focuses on the flatness of the picture plane. The uninterrupted fields of paint draw the viewer’s attention to the surface. The reference to landscape is spare; it is the horizon line and palette that gesture back to the natural world. The influence of abstraction on artists in this exhibition, including Alexander, Hardy, McKee and Dorothy Knowles, is not surprising given the institutional support in both Alberta and Saskatchewan for late modernism. This support began in the mid-1950s with the Emma Lake Workshops and can be traced well into the 1980s in institutions that include the Art Gallery of Alberta (then The Edmonton Art Gallery). This support, however, was not divorced from 19th century painting. In fact, Impressionism – the works of Claude Monet in particular – was often cited by curators and critics, such as Clement Greenberg, as formal precursors to abstract painting.
The exhibition State of Nature features some of the most important artists in this region’s practice of contemporary landscape painting: David Alexander, Dorothy Knowles, Ted Godwin, Gregory Hardy, John McKee and Norman Yates, and includes the work of renowned multimedia artist Peter von Tiesenhausen. Considering these works within the context of 19th century art, this exhibition will examine the connections and disconnections between individual works and movements that shaped that era: Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism.
 Quoted in Mary-Beth Laviolette, An Alberta Art Chronicle: Adventures in Recent and Contemporary Art (Canmore, Alberta: Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd., 2006): 29.