The shape of the ‘Ships’

Joan Sullivan
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Barbara Pratt captures the province’s most familiar sea monsters with blazing realism

“Catherine Knutsen”

Two years ago, Barbara Pratt had an exhibition titled “Train”, inspired by journeys she took across mainland Canada. These were pieces of rolling metal and curling rail, not muscular, exactly, as they were manmade, but still creatures of physical movement on track.

Now the visual artist presents “Ships”, eight large oil on canvas and eight small oil on panel paintings, of the vessels, often offshore related, which sail in and out of St. John’s and Conception Bay.

These are functional machines, complex and often huge, and, in the right hands (i.e. Pratt’s), also luminous and thrilling. And the paintings in “Ships” are splendid works, rendered with a blazing realism that is fused with precision even as it is infused with an alchemy of sea myth and workaday economics.

Like American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971), Pratt has developed a passion and eye for big works of industrial engineering, creating representational pieces that are also fabulous in perspective and impressionistic in their engagement with light.

In “Catherine Knutsen”, the side of a ship resembles hammered bronze foil as it rests, anchored, its hull a scrim of crepuscular ocean. This is a big ship, and it is big in the painting, the refinery in the background dwarfed by the deck top towers and rigs of the tanker. It is only a partial view of the vessel, as is “Tanker in Conception Bay”, which is filled with a cropped undulation of bow, which is giant, and weathered, and figurative, even feminine, with its classic hourglass curvature.

These ships are in their natural found settings of water and sky and wake. So they are often framed and balanced by lines, of the horizon, or a cloud bank. Sometimes the ships “model” each other. In “FPSO Sea Rose”, two smaller ships attend the massive production platform, a floating worksite of drills and cranes; in “Support Vessels Leaving St. John’s”, a pair of supply ships are almost time lapsed views of a single image, the exactness of an exterior ladder or hoisted flag morphing into a clutch of tiny floating lights.

All these pieces are attuned in magic hour hues and tones. This creates the dreamlike sense that these ships are almost living things; certainly they are vital parts of a living environment. Some paintings do show people, crew members, small but at purpose. But in most any personnel aboard are inside, doing their jobs of sailing and running the ships.

The ships are the subject, the focus. Some are the centre of works seen from different times and angles. The smaller oil on panel paintings are a series of the “Komatik” at night, and these are astonishing studies of dark and light, glow and reflection cast like precious stones on velvet.

As Pratt says in her artist’s statement: “Ships are beautiful, mysterious and a marvel of human invention. … I paint them because they impress me.”

And she, in turn, us.

“Ships: New Oil Paintings by Barbara Pratt” continues at the Emma Butler Gallery until Dec. 8.

Geographic location: Conception Bay, Canada

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