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Joan Sullivan
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David Blackwood meditates on structural spontaneity

In 1996, artist David Blackwood produced an etching called "Cyril's Kite Over Blackwood's Hill." It shows one of his characteristic Newfoundland communities. It is dusk, and winter, the neat saltbox houses punctuated by glowing squares of windows, the people bundled in dark coats, the adults chatting, the kids sliding. Over it all floats a big white kite, belly to the wind, its long, curling, multi-coloured tail an animated zephyr, its ephemeral presence both spectral and somehow protective. The arc of the kite in some ways illuminates the sweep of Blackwood's iconography, with its first fame of lost, doomed sealers and submerged leviathans to its recent celebrations of light and colour infused with, if not spirituality, at least a concentrated serenity.

"New Watercolours: A Form of Meditation" is the title of Blackwood's newest show, opening this evening at the Emma Butler Gallery. The pieces blossom with petals and foliage and are packed to the frames with radiance. They are, Blackwood said, all about the light.

" 'Sunburst' Magnolia (Spring).' Submitted photos

In 1996, artist David Blackwood produced an etching called "Cyril's Kite Over Blackwood's Hill." It shows one of his characteristic Newfoundland communities. It is dusk, and winter, the neat saltbox houses punctuated by glowing squares of windows, the people bundled in dark coats, the adults chatting, the kids sliding. Over it all floats a big white kite, belly to the wind, its long, curling, multi-coloured tail an animated zephyr, its ephemeral presence both spectral and somehow protective. The arc of the kite in some ways illuminates the sweep of Blackwood's iconography, with its first fame of lost, doomed sealers and submerged leviathans to its recent celebrations of light and colour infused with, if not spirituality, at least a concentrated serenity.

"New Watercolours: A Form of Meditation" is the title of Blackwood's newest show, opening this evening at the Emma Butler Gallery. The pieces blossom with petals and foliage and are packed to the frames with radiance. They are, Blackwood said, all about the light.

He was speaking from his home in Port Hope, Ont., where he had just returned from a series of events in Toronto marking the reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Blackwood serves on the AGO Board, and the social calendar was intense.

"It's been amazing, quite amazing. When you have 68,000 paid members the openings go on and on. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all the people on the board share a responsibility for hosting. On Wednesday night we had a reception for 1,200 artists. And they all had a drink before they arrived and they all had a drink when they arrived and when it was time for the official remarks no one could hear a thing."

He was pleased with the success of the soirees, which have generated such buzz that gallery-goers took great advantage of the weekend's free admission, with as many as 20,000 people lining up for as much as three hours.

Studio time

Such duties keep Blackwood in Toronto one or maybe two days a week, but he still manages to spend five days in the studio. Or studios, as it happens. "I work on the watercolours in the house, and in the morning. It has to do with tons of light."

The soaked, stretched canvases are laid flat as he works on them. "Except for when you want to look at them, then they're vertical. It's very slow. It looks spontaneous but the watercolours take months. You spend a long time considering them, and then bang! you work on them for 10 minutes. That's where word 'meditation' comes from, you spend so much time looking at it."

They do look natural and uncontrived, but they are actually composed with a carefully pitched discipline that still allows for happy accidents, he explained.

"The secret is a skeleton established in drawing. An architectural framework that is designed and planned. And you can hang spontaneity on that framework."

Blackwood has exhibited floral pieces before, but these pieces are closer to still lifes. "Deruta (Majolica 'Fish')," for example, has a half-dozen blooms shaded red, pink and white in a tall clear glass vase. It sits on a round table with three paintbrushes in a small brown jar and an orange ashtray shaped like a gold fish. The table is shiny and reflects the objects. The backdrop is a subtly calibrated plane of sea and sky in luminous grays.

"'Paradiso' (Salah's Tulips)" shows a potted purple orchid with a painting of red tulips and a copy of Dante's "Paradiso." These are set on a gleaming wooden table by a window that looks out into a garden, very green, with a tree and fountain.

The colours come from the objects themselves, and Blackwood said he doesn't have to go far to find gorgeous flowers as his wife, Anita, is a tremendous gardener.

The backgrounds come in as a structural facet. He was inspired to try this after seeing a David Milne exhibition.

"Milne is perhaps our greatest painter, primarily for his oils but he was also pre-occupied with watercolour. For me, looking at it as a painter, I thought: wouldn't it be great if there was an architectural element in watercolour, if you could combine the structural planning with the spontaneity, combine the draftsmanship with the spontaneity?

"Watercolour is a different head space, as opposed to printmaking. It's a mental relief from other media. Printing is demanding and thinking in black and white, mostly. I understand why someone like Picasso spent a half a year making ceramics, and finding that wonderful, and then getting fed up with it and drawing for a year, and then engraving for a year, and then getting back to painting."

Blackwood's schedule allows for the same sort of realignments. He works on watercolour in the morning, printmaking in the afternoon, and painting in the evening.

His oil paintings are not so widely know as his prints, because "printmaking is very democratic, everyone sees the prints, but the paintings tend to disappear into the private domain." Nevertheless, he's in the midst of a major series, 175 works on the subject Ephraim Kelloway's door. (This is an artifact from Blackwood's home community of Wesleyville that he has described as "an example of authentic folk art.") Some of the pieces in the series are small studies but many are big, even huge, measuring as much as 75" x 105".

"These switches, from watercolour to printmaking to painting, are like playing various musical instruments." And Blackwood is adding yet another to his considerable repertoire. "I'm moving slowly into collage constructions, with wooden panels and relief sculpture."

These, too, will be part of the "Doors" series.

"David Blackwood, New Watercolours," continues at the Emma Butler Gallery until Dec. 6.

Organizations: Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO Board

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Toronto, Port Hope Wesleyville

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