Thursday, March 31, 2016

Breakthrough

As an art student attending Mt. Allison University in the 1950s, Mary Pratt was given some advice by university administrator Lawren Harris.  He told her there could be only one painter in a family, and that role was destined to be filled by Mary's husband, Christopher.

She was upset by this pronouncement though not deterred, and vowed to continue painting in the midst of domestic chores, raising four children and being a supportive wife to career-driven Christopher. Given the circumstances - a stay-at-home mother managing household tasks -  it is not surprising to learn that Mary Pratt's artistic oeuvre evolved from a set of slides, photographs showing arrangements of everyday objects in ordinary settings.  The kitchen counter and dining table became stages for the drama and beauty she found in the quotidian.   Photography was the tool that made it possible to preserve fleeting moments for later consideration in the studio.   

The Owens Art Gallery at Mt. Allison University is hosting an exhibition of Mary Pratt's paintings with one work from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada as the centerpiece.   "Red Currant Jelly" from 1972 is a small canvas painted in primary colours, featuring four bowls of jelly and a plate positioned on sheets of aluminum foil.  The reflective surface of the foil forms a complex shimmery web of blue sky highlights and dark maroon jelly shadows.  

Mary Pratt, "Red Currant Jelly" 1972, oil on masonite, 45.9 x 45.6 cm 
The hyperactive, busy section of the composition is contrasted with the blank slice of counter top shown in the lower left foreground.  There are conflicting elements at work in Pratt's work: wobbly liquid vs. solid surface, floating vs. resting.  It's a painting that encapsulates the jellymaker's main concern, "Will it set?"  On a philosophical level, it may suggest a precarious human condition: life is a risk-taking venture. with no guarantees that things will work out as planned.

Apparently husband Christopher didn't think much of the off-kilter, asymmetrical composition.  (Perhaps he had never tried his hand at making jelly.)  In the exhibition catalogue Mary records his critique.

"Usually Christopher and I didn't visit each other's studios - but for some reason, he did come to my space while I was working in the first stages of "Red Currant Jelly." He took one look, and said. "You'll never get away with that big yellow shape."  Always - always - I had followed his advice - but not this time. 
I didn't dismiss it right away, but after looking at the drawing and considering the slide, I knew that the painting required this calm, flat shape.  The oval tops of the jars and the plate served to establish a gentle perspective.  But the yellow added a more rigid notion of not just perspective, but the fact that the foil was raised and so there was the added suggestion that there was an underside to the whole image - even a floating sense - and that feeling that, if you put your finger under that little lift of foil, you might upset the jelly."

The jelly painting proved to be an important, pivotal piece in Mary Pratt's development as an artist.  It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1976 and marked the beginning of curatorial recognition of Mary Pratt as a significant Canadian artist.

 "Anyway, I didn't pay much attention to Christopher's advice - and probably this was the first time.  Maybe this little picture was my first small step to an independent life."   
- Mary Pratt, February 23, 2015


The exhibition "This Little Painting" continues at the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, NB until May 22, 2016

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