Flexhaug’s paintings could be from a Wes Anderson movie

ART by Paul Dechene


A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings Of Levine Flexhaug
MacKenzie Art Gallery
Until Aug. 9

Stepping into A Sublime Vernacular, an exhibit of landscape paintings by Levine Flexhaug at the MacKenzie Gallery, is a little like walking into a Wes Anderson film. You find yourself surrounded by hundreds of framed woodland scenes. Each contains the pine trees and rustic vistas of Moonrise Kingdom; the rich, almost gaudy, colour palettes of The Grand Budapest Hotel; the memories of a lost time of innocence that lurks behind everything Anderson’s done, from Rushmore to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

These are paintings that a Bill Murray character could stare at sadly for hours.

And yet, Flexhaug is no professional nostalgist. Which is funny, because when I first saw his work, I figured he was a contemporary artist — some cheeky postmodernist — commenting on sentimental landscapes and our Canadian preoccupation with an idealized outdoors. But then I read his bio and realized this wasn’t a backward-looking commentary on anything. It’s the thing itself.

And Levine Flexhaug’s life sounds like it was lifted straight out of an Anderson film.

Flexhaug was an itinerant artist who supported his family by travelling across Western Canada from the late ’30s to the ’60s and producing speed paintings out of the back of his car. He’d pull up at a beach resort in Saskatchewan or a provincial park in Alberta, set up his easels and start churning out paintings for pay, almost identical scenes over and over and over again. Trees to left and right. A lake or valley stretched out at the foot of a mountain range rising in the background. And in the midst of it all, a deer or moose in silhouette.

It all sounds pretty conventional. But Flexhaug, in the thousands of works he produced, somehow transcended that simple formula.

“I look at them and get really excited by seeing them,” says David Thauberger, a Regina artist whose Road Trips & Other Diversions, a retrospective exhibition of his work, is showing next door to the Flexhaug exhibit.

Thauberger, like many prairie artists, has been a fan of Flexhaug’s for decades, and some pieces from his collection — “Flexies” as they’re called by collectors — appear in the show.

Thauberger says as a practicing artist, one of the things he finds exciting about the exhibit is to see how Flexhaug’s painting evolved over the years. He says by the mid-fifties, Flexhaug achieved a “high style” where he was less concerned with imitating nature and was working more with the interplay of colours and shapes.

“That’s a very modernist kind of notion, and I guess probably that’s what a lot of us as professional artists really respond to,” says Thauberger. “The whole thing about applying the paint and letting the paint speak as opposed to getting really caught up in the minutiae of trying to render detail.

“You can see exactly what brush [Flexhaug] used and, with that brush, what technique he used; it’s all really apparent,” continues Thauberger. “There’s no mystery. The mystery comes at the end: how do these things look so wonderful? By the application of these almost rote series of techniques and processes, he came up over and over again with a really magical look.”

“He must have loved painting them because he never gets slack,” says Nancy Tousley, who, along with Peter White, curated the Flexhaug exhibit. “He never dashes them off. Although he did them quickly, he does them with such incredible care. And I think that’s one of the things that makes you feel something.”

According to Tousley, one of the abiding mysteries about Flexhaug is where he learned to paint the way he did.

“We have no idea how he learned a set of very specific techniques that were used by him that were used by people who made paintings on furniture and carriages in the decorative arts going back to at least the 17th century,” she says.

Tousley notes that unlike many of the exhibits she and White have curated where they assemble a known artist’s work, putting together the Flexhaug show was a voyage of discovery.

“All we knew about [Flexhaug] when we started was very little beyond ‘Flexie’ and an image. A name and an image,” she says.

“The experience was kind of like, okay, you go to David Thauberger’s house for some other reason and then you see a Flexie hanging on the wall. And then you see another one and another one and another one, and then you say, ‘Who’s that?’ And you hear a story about ‘Well, I don’t really know much about him. But if you keep your eyes peeled you might find one in Value Village or a flea market.’ And then you keep running into them.”

While Tousley and White organized the show through the Gallery of Grande Prairie, they give a lot of credit to the Mackenzie Gallery for being the first place to house the exhibit.

“There are a lot of galleries that wouldn’t want this show and certainly questioned it and thought it was frivolous and, in some cases, ludicrous or an insult to art. That kind of thing. There was certainly that element that ran through the offering of the exhibition to galleries,” says White.

“In some ways Regina is the heart, the key location in the sense that it’s the epicentre for Flexie. That’s where they first started turning up. And he was from Southern Saskatchewan and the whole thing radiated out from there.”

If you want to learn more about Levine Flexhaug, Tousley and White produced a book based on their work for the show. And Calgary filmmakers Donna Brunsdale and Gary Burns produced Flexie!, a documentary about Flexhaug and the people who collect his paintings.

There is also a website, www.levineflexhaug.ca, that collects all the paintings from the exhibit, and where Tousley and White hope people will upload pics of their own Flexies.

A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings Of Levine Flexhaug is at the Mackenzie Gallery until Sunday, Aug. 9.