As I walked through the Toronto International Art Fair recently, a strong, large work with bright, burning red colors caught my eye. Thinking it a bit too much, I kept walking; but somehow, after more browsing, I returned to it. Something about the painting intrigued me. It was Steve Driscoll’s “Seared by the Sun” (left), depicting a landscape set afire by the setting sun. xxxxxx
When I later learned that Angell Gallery had dedicated a solo show to Driscoll’s recent paintings, I was happy to have a chance to see even more. Artist, Steve Driscoll, though young, is well-known, with many exhibitions and a number of important publications about himself and his work to his credit: “Conversations” with 15 interviews (2008) and “Intelligence with the Earth,” a book by Gary Michael Dault (2012), among them.
Steve Driscoll in his studio (2014). Photo: Mike Shore.
His current exhibition, The Smoke Show and Other Deceptions in Paint, consists entirely of landscapes. In discussing Canadian art with Europeans, landscape comes up first as they believe that Canadian talent is limited to that genre. Many of them know about the Group of Seven, who truly believe that landscape painting best represents Canada’s identity. European critics envy our endless forests and countless lakes—our seemingly infinite lands, still wild. They know little of the contemporary artistic culture slowly emerging here, even in the landscape genre: the tension-filled fields of Alex Colville; Peter Doig’s semi-abstract lakes; Kim Dorland’s neon-bright paintings; and Steve Driscoll’s work.
Left: ‘Smoke Show (Setting Sun),’ 2014, Urethane on board, 60 x 40″. All images courtesy of the artist.
The Smoke Show series captures the smoke of a campfire, an unusual theme for a painting. Driscoll says that he is most interested in the “process” of his work. Each of his new shows starts with in-studio experimentation, where he sometimes discovers new ways to manipulate materials or colours, inspired by nature to see where it can best be applied. He uses the industrial material urethane that permits a watercolor-like translucency. His Smoke series is a perfect example of this method, as he describes, “developing a process which leaves a ghost-like mark on the surface. Rather than covering the paint beneath, it takes the colours from below and shifts their tone in a direction of my choosing. Not immediately knowing what to do with this I started to explore my surroundings and came across campfire smoke… I wanted there to be a meditative element which mimicked the effects of watching smoke rise into the night. Although the exact locations of my work are rarely important to me, this fire was at the turn-around point of a 100k hiking trail, which meant I was in a very contemplative state of mind.”
Right: ‘Portage’ (2014), Urethane on board, 78 x 78″.
The six paintings in Smoke Show depict the evolution of campfire and smoke from daylight, through dusk and darkness, till dawn—creating a series not unlike Monet’s “Haystacks.” Throughout human history, fire and smoke are both instilled with mythological, mystical meaning, ubiquitous to ceremonies and everyday life. Smoke itself can be a signal for help or it can betray your whereabouts. Smoke was believed to banish evil, and clear and bless one’s surroundings. It is also a symbol of memory, the passing of time, and of love or happiness flowing away. In Driscoll’s paintings, smoke becomes the main character in nature’s theatre. The same scene graces each painting: a small clearing in front of some trees. Grey towers of smoke spill over the burning fire, dancing, flirting and frolicing in the air.
Each piece creates a distinct impression by depicting the hours’ passing with changing colors. “Trance” captures the last golden rays of the sun surrounded by the approaching darkness. Then, the witching hour (“Magic Hour”) and dusk (“Dusk”) arrive and darkness takes over. The colors of the landscape deepen to dark blues, magentas and purples, until black covers most of the surface. As the landscapes darken further, the smoke becomes even more dramatic, filling the entire foreground. It sparkles with white light, ashes flying like fireflies or snowflakes. In “Only Come to Leave” the fire remains, but an empty blue bench on the right and a predominantly cold, blue palette suggest that it is already morning and time to leave. A larger area of the clearing in pictured, but the magic of the smoke is gone.
Left: ‘Smoke Show (Trance),’ 2014, Urethane on board, 60 40″.
Immersing myself in these paintings, I am melancholy, as I strangely place myself behind the fire, just in front of the trees. I realize it’s not the correct vantage point since, as the viewer, I should be on the other side of the fire, looking at the landscape through the smoke. The smoke embraces me, but at the same time I feel the tawny tree roots’ hold on me, and the call of the forest. The smoke seems to have a mesmerizing power, though with a magical playfulness that dims my mind. It has many possible interpretations as in Henry David Thoreau’s poem Smoke “Light-winged Smoke, Icarian bird, / Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight…/ Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form / Of midnight vision…”
Steve Driscoll loves nature, spending lots of time in the wilderness, hiking and kayaking, regardless of the weather. He always brings his camera along, taking countless photographs to use later for his paintings. In those paintings, however, he doesn’t interpret the landscape literally, but often mixes elements, using a lake from one image, a forest from another, then adding his imaginative light effects to create his own unique vision.
Right: “The Warmth We Once Knew” (2014), Urethane on board, 60 x 90″.
“The Warmth We Once Knew” contains different hues of only one color—purple—with white added for lighting effect. I think of it as a purple orgy, since it is such a strong, vibrant piece. Even though it is a symmetrical composition—the sun being at the center—it is still very unsettling since it is hard to decide where the waterline is, where the land ends and where the mirror image starts. It is more abstract than realistic as the land transcends into the unworldly through this burning purple. The sun’s depiction is reminiscent of the intensity of Van Gogh’s vision in “Starry Night.” As Driscoll recalls, the idea for the painting came from an early spring fishing trip, when there were no leaves on the trees, with the sun setting behind the bare branches. “I often find myself staring at this low burning flame in wonder. Being on the horizon you can hold your gaze for longer than normal. The resulting image after closing your eyes is what this piece was attempting to depict—that lingering vision burned into my eyelids.” The painting is immensely physical, pulsating with potent purple hues that sear the viewer’s retina in much the same way.
Left: ‘Fall is a Feeling You Just Can’t Lose’ (2014), Urethane on panel, 78 x 78″.
“Fall is a Feeling You Just Can’t Lose” is one painting that you just can’t walk by. It mesmerizes with its strong oranges and reds, contrasted with deep blues. It is a fall landscape with the forest at its most colorful, the setting sun appearing to light the trees so unbearably strongly that the viewer can lose themselves in it. In “Portage”, another strongly colored piece, the purple road seems to guide us into the unknown, the hidden eternity of the forest. It is, however, a depiction of the end of a portage, which by nature, Driscoll thinks, is the most exciting part of any portage. “The anticipation of relief is usually the only thing carrying the body forward at that point. The opening of the canopy is the first sign of the impending lake ahead, followed by snippets of reflecting water at a distance. Portage embodies that feeling of excitement and relief in one.” The vertical line in the centre of the piece is a loosely rendered section of trail boardwalk consisting of fallen logs, a common sight in boggy sections of a well-used trail. Even with all of the details explained, the painting retains a magical power and “captures the spirit of the place with a fresh vision”, as every article about Driscoll states. Though these paintings juxtapose bold colors, they also offer the peaceful presence of nature, as passed down by elders in an old Native American story:
The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers…”
Right: ‘Promise Land’ (2014), Urethane on board, 40 x 40″.
Driscoll’s colors may seem artificial, but they are still deeply rooted in nature. While still living in Europe, I saw images of Canadian landscapes with all those burning reds and golden yellows believing that those printing companies had done a poor job by exaggerating all those colors. But now, living on the lakeside in Toronto and walking in nature for more than 25 years, I find I have to apologize. The sand can be purple in a cold sunset—or gold. The color of the lake contains every possible blue and grays, and many more hues without names; and the trees really are golden and bright red. The Canadian sky is amazing, bleeding in shades of red or shining in tones of blue and silver. This is a colourful place, a painter’s paradise.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, our perceptions are different. Photoshop images surround us in advertisements, movies and “documentary” travel videos are “touched up.” What is true and what is false? I would consider John Keats’ lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in describing Driscoll’s paintings. What we see on the canvas is his persona, painterly truth and it is beautiful. In his latest email to me he wrote, “I hope that my work can inspire a sense of wonder in the viewer. I experience great joy in producing it.” I think it certainly does—both wonder and joy.
By Emese Krunak-Hajagos, Contributing Writer
Emese writes for her own blog at www.artoronto.ca