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Robert Stacey

Bruce St. Clair
Aggregation Gallery, February 24 - March 14

artscanada, August/September 1979, p. 51-52
[ 1,020 words ]


Meretricious copying without imagination was abhorrent to the critic John Ruskin, who saw no contradiction in advocating both the infinite pains of the Pre-Raphaelite landscapists and the seemingly careless near-abstractions of Turner. As the once-reviled modes of realistic and figurative painting threaten to become the new dogma, it is amusing to speculate on the attitude a resurrected Ruskin might assume when confronted with the spectacle of so many breakaway sects, each asserting the primacy of its creed and the fallacy of all other faiths.

He would, no doubt, have some interesting things to say about the recently concluded travelling retrospective of oils by the Ontario realist Bruce St. Clair. The exhibition, organized and circulated by Toronto's Aggregation Gallery during 1977-78, touched down at eight centres, from Calgary to Saint John. In Bruce St. Clair Paintings: A Ten Year Survey, the earliest of the 30 paintings shown date from 1968-69, the latest 1977. The artist is young and largely self-taught, and like the one contemporary realist he professes to admire, Mary Pratt, manifestly belongs to no camp or cadre.

Although like so many of his stylistic coevals he relies on colour transparencies, he refers to them rather as field notes than as sources to be copied with slavish literalism, and he frequently returns to the scene of his subject to confirm impressions and note down minutiae missed by the lens. His naturalism is devoid of Magic Realism's specious injection of the sinister or the nostalgic and of its freezing-of-the-moment frigidity. At the same time, the psychological or mystical dimensions aspired to by other realist factions are absent, as is the smug, fey, post-Pop cynicism of the Photo-Realists. If one were to locate St. Clair among contemporaries, it could conceivably be as a sympathizer with but not necessarily a follower of Jack Chambers's mode of "perceptual realism".

Yet St. Clair remains an independent. It is preferable to regard him as an inheritor of those masters of literal landscape, the first-and second-generation Pre-Raphaelites who strove to realize Ruskin's dream of an art which reflected a determination to be "in all respects as like Nature as possible." An oil like Early Morning Oatfield of 1976 -- a small miracle which might have reminded Ruskin of Ford Madox Brown, John Brett, or William Inchbold -- is a remarkably compact yet physically unrestrained statement of fact: fact whose clarity and decision in no way interfere with the totality of impact, the overall effect, which again celebrates attention to minor detail without distracting from 'the charm of the whole'. The freshly-mown meadow is instinct with atmosphere, yet blissfuly free from that fake aura which surrounds the objects painted with such uncritical zealotry by Ken Danby or D.P. Brown. St. Clair's reality, hence his realism, is rooted in soil. Part of the secret is his choice of medium; luminous, richly colourful oils on gesso-coated panels (applied with sometimes finicky finesse, but not timidly or stiltedly), rather than dry, scratchy, low-keyed egg tempera. As St. Clair himself puts it, "In a sense my realism is not a style at all, leaving the subject matter free from the limitations of thick paint, obvious brush strokes and gimmicks, to make its own statement." In this one can trace St. Clair's divergence from his early models, the Group of Seven. His otherwise inevident debt to their work is revealed in his geographical range.

St. Clair sees southern Ontario scenes from a different angle than do most of the realist faction: End of Construction (1973), for instance, posits the case of a random group of road signs, machinery, and the sharply depicted declivity of gravel pit late winter or early spring. Crossroadsattracts the eye to the unexpected felicities of a bleak sundown or sunup behind dense but delicately traced brush, which is echoed by the rectilinear crisscross of telephone wires at a country corner. Such attention to snow tones and the calligraphy of winter weeds merits the applause of all who cherish real painting -- realistic or otherwise.

St. Clair has learned to trust the camera to the extent that he is beginning to allow precision of detail to recede with distance, and is even capable of interludes of impressionistic shorthand. Lately, too, he has been experimenting with interiors that evince his private religious feelings: In a Deserted House (1976), with its faded icon, and The Lord's Supper (1977), which unconsciously alludes to Zurbaran and Dali. Were he a Victorian, his apparent course would be toward the visionary; as it is, his paintings so far lack that extra dimension of the sublime or (more in keeping with our age) the surreal, which might otherwise elevate them beyond their present status as observations rather than interpretations or illuminations.

For St. Clair to progress he must graduate from the college of surfaces, that self-perpetuating academy of renderers preoccupied with the pedantry of grain and grass, of fur and foliage. Not that he should lapse from his enchantment with detail; only enforce it with an emboldened sense of the deeper possibilities of his subjects and materials, and with a more extensive development outwards as well as inwards of the picture plane. More respect paid to the architecture of composition and the dynamics of form, less to the paraphernalia of content and the beguilements of "meaning." St. Clair would do well to take a long look at the wave-studies of James Sinclair, and the road and flower studies of Robert Sinclair, near-namesakes of equivalent skill but more objective approach. More time spent pondering the quandaries of process, and less in the evocation of extraneous emotions, would undoubtedly profit.

Are these related suggestions heresies Ruskin would have denounced? Not if we recall his demand for scope as well as for exactitude. Turner's 'affections' he wrote, clung 'to humble scenery; gentle mildness of pastoral life,' while his 'admiration' was 'fastened on largeness of scale.' The greatest landscapes involve the combination of 'complete representation of clouds' with the 'careful realization of stones.' St. Clair at 34 has the latter refined to a science.

artscanada, August/September 1979, p. 51-52

Text: © Robert Stacey. All rights reserved.

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