An epic retrospective showcases a brilliant East Coast painter

by Gregory Beatty


art-2Mary Pratt
MacKenzie Gallery
Until Aug. 24

During her long career as a painter, the now- 79-year-old Mary Pratt has earned many accolades, among them membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and the Order of Canada. But she’s arguably still vastly underappreciated for all the amazing art she’s created. That thought occurred to me when I attended a curatorial talk during the opening weekend of this 50-year retrospective of Pratt’s work.

If you missed the walkthrough with curators Mireille Eagan (The Rooms Provincial Gallery in St. John’s, NL) and Sarah Fillmore (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia), don’t fret. Scattered throughout the show are several terminals where you can watch video interviews with Pratt about her remarkable life and art.

Born Mary West in Fredericton in 1935 to a prominent family (her father was a successful lawyer who later served as New Brunswick’s Minister of Justice), Pratt studied fine art at Mount Allison University in the late ’50s under such luminaries as Lawren Harris and Alex Colville. While there she met and married fellow art student Christopher Pratt, and ultimately settled with him in the Newfoundland village of St. Catherines in 1964.

Think about that for a moment. She went from a very comfortable and genteel life in Fredericton to scratching out a living with another artist in a remote Newfoundland outport. Granted, her husband was no slouch as an artist, so they were able to survive and raise a family of four children together before they separated in 1990.

But it wouldn’t have been easy. And during most of that time, Pratt herself worked as an artist.

During their talk, Fillmore and Eagan mentioned the Atlantic School of Realism. It doesn’t officially exist, but there’s a long tradition of Maritime artists (such as Colville and Christopher Pratt) working in a realist style. Mary Pratt falls into that camp too, and has long relied on photographs and projected slides for artistic inspiration.

Supper Table (1969), which depicts the remnants of a family meal of hotdogs with all the fixings, was the first painting she created with a photographic assist. Nowadays, artists blend media all the time. It’s a staple of postmodernism, in fact. But when Pratt started working that way, said the curators, she felt like she was cheating.

While Pratt shares membership with Colville and her former husband in the (unofficial) Atlantic Realist school, her work differed greatly from theirs. Stylistically, their paintings tend to be flat and arid. Pratt, conversely, favoured a lush, even luminous palette dominated by vivid reds — red being her mother’s favourite colour.

In one of the videos, Pratt attributed some of the luminosity to her use of slides where the projector light was strongest at the image’s centre and dimmer on the periphery. Regardless, it’s pretty spectacular.

Then there’s the subject matter. As a wife and mother of four in the pre-feminist era, Pratt had a lot of domestic responsibilities tied to child care, food preparation, family celebrations and whatnot. And that became the subject of her art.

Feminist art historians subsequently argued that Pratt validated everyday female experience. That was an important thread of early feminism — one that artists such as Mary Kelly in Post-Partum Document (1973-79)and Judy Chicago in The Dinner Party (1979) also explored. From a distance, her paintings probably don’t seem overly subversive and critical of patriarchy. But when you dig into them you find plenty going on.

To begin with, because they’re derived from photos, there’s subtle distortions in spots where the camera lens was unable to compensate as the human eye does when we view something. Her subject matter was often innocuous: a woman bathing in a tub, a cut chocolate birthday cake, a tinfoil covered turkey basting in an oven, a trio of Royal Doulton figurines in a crystal bowl, flayed moose hindquarters with blood spattered everywhere — okay, that one is an exception.

But it’s not the only one. Another painting shows a dead pheasant hanging in a window waiting to be plucked and cooked, while a third depicts a severed fish head in a sink. Jarring to urban sensibilities, perhaps, but for Pratt it was just part of her hardscrabble life in Newfoundland.

While Pratt’s paintings are nominally still-life, they’re strongly in the vanitas tradition. That was a movement that arose in the dark and gloomy Netherlands in the 16th century where artists explored stark truths about life related to decay, decline and death through richly symbolic paintings of fruit, vegetables, flowers, fresh game, and the occasional skull.

As noted, Pratt’s paintings have amazing luminosity. So she departs from the vanitas tradition in that respect. But her paintings are packed with psychological and emotional tension. I suppose you could look at many of the works — outside of the really overt ones, like the flayed moose carcass — through rose-coloured glasses and not pick up on any of it. But really, you can’t miss it.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments of great tenderness and beauty scattered through the exhibition. In Child With Two Adults (1983), for instance, Pratt depicts her adult daughter bathing her own daughter (Pratt’s first grandchild) in a basin.

The infant’s eyes are wide with wonder — evoking a poignant sense of hope and joy for the future.