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Liz Wylie

Robert Sinclair
Hett Gallery, Edmonton, September 13 — 19 1984

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985.
[ 734 words ]

Although Robert Sinclair has established a national reputation, particularly for his lovely quirky watercolours, it is unlikely that many people who know his work realize that he lives in Edmonton. A few years ago a Toronto radio interviewer said to the artist that he always thought of Sinclair as living 'just outside Toronto'. Certainly he is an odd man out in terms of the polarized art community in this city. With no affiliations to artists working in the late modernist abstract idiom, nor any to those rabidly opposed to it, his rather whimsical work takes up a position in a no man's land, with vague connotations of Chicago or California.

Sinclair's oeuvre divides neatly into three distinct activities: watercolours, acrylic on canvas paintings and painted plexiglas sculptures. It is the watercolours that carried the show and are the artist's successful achievements. In these pieces Sinclair uses a small stock of subjects — flowers, hoodoos and receding highways. These are jumping off points for playing with the medium and pictorial concerns. Titles are pencilled directly onto the page in 60s-esque block lettering with no vowels. They usually refer fairly literally to the subject or composition of the painting (Squeeze Opening, which appears as Sqz Opng, Presence Centre, Lily and Sky etc.). A rectangle is often drawn freehand with pencil within the edge of the paper and elements of the painted area sometimes playfully poked out or droop over the line. Much of Sinclair's playfulness, however, can be seen to work against him to some extent. For, although there is a charm to his watercolours with their pastel colour, fresh blank white areas and beautifully incisive drawing, too often the charm is a self-conscious one. Only rarely does he seem to have run away with himself in his work and not have been completely conscious, in an ego-controlling sense, of what he was doing at any point.

In two very recent works in the show, one a watercolour and one an acrylic on canvas, both titled Canadian Classic: Showers Coming, this is less the case. The paintings are startlingly un-Sinclair-like, especially in the loosely worked amorphous skies, full of huge brooding clouds. The dense atmospheric feeling conveyed is completely new to his work. Possibly the freedom indicated by this new direction could be a way of the pitfall of self-consciousness for Sinclair.

In another recent landscape series called Slit, an extra layer of meaning than is usually present in Sinclair's work is suggested by the relationship between a receding road piercing through a Slit in a rock wall. One cannot help considering the obvious sexual symbolism, but the libidinal feeling is there only to tease us. For, as always, the real content of Sinclair's work is his own playfulness.

The canvases in the exhibition tended to fall flat. They seem to be scaled up versions of the artist's watercolour activity (though not of specific watercolours) and the thin shapes are too large to read. So, the paintings appear as somewhat disjointed planes and lack the explosive zip of the best watercolours. As well, Sinclair could consider the paint handling in the acrylics. The even staining method does not yield as rich a look as he achieves with the blending and bleeding of the watercolour on paper. The plexiglas sculptures of landscape elements in the show were all from two to three years ago and were flawed in terms of details of workmanship and their relationship to the awkward pedestals. Apparently the artist has taken such aspects into account in his more recent sculptures. (These works were exhibited in Toronto last fall at the Wynick/Tuck Gallery).

I remember vividly first seeing Sinclair's work as an undergraduate art student over ten years ago and being very taken with the artist's breaking of rules and sense of fun; but, with the passing of time, perhaps his stock in trade of gestures and tricks has become a little shop worn. Sinclair has some hard thinking to do about his work. Certainly the potential is there in his recent cloudy sky paintings with their elemental feeling, for a push in a completely new direction.

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985.

Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.


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