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Lora Senechal Carney

Kim Ondaatje: Paintings 1950-1975
University of Toronto Art Centre, July 22 - August 16, 2008
[catalogue essay]

An artist who began as a painter, Kim Ondaatje remained very much a painter for the first twenty years of her career, even as she established a printmaking and a photography practice and made documentary and art films.

The painting began gradually in the 1950s. Nonobjective art was reaching its heights in North America at that time, which is interesting since nonobjective art requires a certain faith - no longer the mystical faith of Kandinsky and Mondrian and Lawren Harris, but at least a belief that a picture could mean something without a recognizable subject. The fifties seem to have been a decade of cold war and economic boom rather than of faith. Yet, in 1959, a jury for the National Gallery of Canada's Biennial Exhibition of Canadian art would find that "little real talent seemed to be devoted...to the more traditional forms of representational painting" and that the strongest work was in abstract expressionism and automatism and geometric abstraction. Artists' writings of the fifties also made it clear that for them, a line had been drawn: the dominance of nonobjective painting required them to take a stand, and in both Québec and English Canada it was clear that Paul-Emile Borduas and the francophone painters who had gathered around him in Montreal in the 1940s were the leaders of Canadian art. Kim Ondaatje was first studying, then teaching poetry and Canadian literature in Québec and Ontario in those years. Although the earliest paintings seen here, Keewaydin Wood and Sumac, may reflect her girlhood studies with the Group of Seven-inspired painter Yvonne McKague Housser, her new work of the early 1960s began to develop in this late-modernist atmosphere. Entering the most productive phase of her painting life, she took up the palette knife and made rich, evocative abstracts and near-abstract landscapes such as Abandoned Orchard. This work carried her gradually into her first major series, the Hill series (1964-1967). Compelling, often dark in their power, the Hill paintings constitute a highly personal and solitary meditation on a world of summers at cottages in rural Quebec and the Canadian Shield where sheer rocky hills and cliffs drop steeply into black water. A shoreline in Wales inspired other works from the series. These hills as painted by Ondaatje are implacable, formidable, taken down to the elemental.

Kim Ondaatje's work was about to shift remarkably. After the great wave of nonobjective art had receded from the art capitals of North America, taking away with it the notion of painting as "progress" in the form of a solution to a formal problem, much new representational work emerged, hugely diverse in approaches and meanings. While there was a sense that no one direction constituted a mainstream any more, there did seem to be a new emphasis on the everyday of experience. Some work, most famously Pop Art, commented on the highly visual aspect of a media-saturated consumer society, a society that writer Miriam Waddington called "private life on a large scale." But many representational artists instead explored the increasingly complex meanings of the local. They questioned how one might relate to the idioms and traditions of a certain place, when the world in which that place exists is increasingly, aggressively international. Of the Canadian instances of this exploration, one of the most prominent is the "regionalism" that grew so exuberantly in London, Ontario, where Kim Ondaatje lived with her family in the late 1960s. According to he writers of the catalogue for the 1998 University of Western Ontario exhibition "Fieldwork,"

As early as 1969, the Canadian art critic, Barry Lord noted in Art In America that London artists were among "first global villagers" given the fact that they were both "plugged into" larger art worlds but at the same time irrevocably committed to producing work from their own experience. Therefore one of the objectives of the exhibition Fieldwork is to recall the 1960's and 1970's heyday of London's regional art scene, when the work of Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Tony Urquhart, Ron Benner, Murray Favro, Jamelie Hassan, Kim Ondaatje and writers such as James Reaney created a sense of excitement about artistic practice in London, not to mention individual bodies of significant work.

For Kim Ondaatje, the London years were a time for building a very active professional life and for close friendships with artists, especially Jack Chambers and Tony Urquhart, co-founders with her of Canadian Artists Representation (now CARFAC), one of the first artists' 'unions' of its kind anywhere. In painting, Kim Ondaatje had a new beginning in the everyday. She had experienced a hiatus after the Hill Series, in which the final paintings had flattened and simplified so much that space and local colour had been almost completely evacuated. Moving to London, she abandoned oils and palette knife and took up acrylics as she began work on the House on Piccadilly Street series. The subject was the century-old London house she and her family shared, which she fixed up and painted. The quiet, subtle colour of this series, its absence of personal gesture and narrative, produce a sense of detachment that echoes, in the artist's own view, the detachment of the abstract geometric artists of the sixties whom she most admired - Molinari, Tousignant, Kiyooka. For the viewer, this emotional distance creates a continuity with the strikingly different subjects of her final series, the Industrial Landscapes, or the Factory Series.

Grander in scale than the House on Piccadilly Street paintings, the Factory paintings present their subjects as remote, set back into the distance, their spaces as utterly impersonal as the spaces in the previous series are intimate. The landscape is stripped to bare, snow-covered contours. The roads, merely faint tracks through the snow, lead the eye into and around the factory complexes but at the same time emphasize the absence of humanity, and of life altogether. These are highly formal paintings, the work of a modernist at the height of her powers.

Lora Senechal Carney
April 2008, Toronto

Text: © Lora Senechal Carney. All rights reserved.

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