Ones to watch

Joan Sullivan
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Visual Arts 2008: The Year in Review

As we take 2008 down from the wall, here's a look at some of the happenings and people that made it a banner year for the visual arts.

No. 1: The Retrospective

Peter Bell's "Alternative Worlds," at the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador, The Rooms, March 14-May 4.

I almost missed this show, first because I misunderstood the closing date, and second because the evening I decided to go the weather was terrible. But I persisted, and was rewarded with a gallery filled with Peter Bell's distinctive canvases, often huge pieces that were brilliantly coloured and iconoclastically configured. I had forgotten how much I liked his paintings.

Greg Bennett's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 3." - Submitted photo

As we take 2008 down from the wall, here's a look at some of the happenings and people that made it a banner year for the visual arts.

No. 1: The Retrospective

Peter Bell's "Alternative Worlds," at the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador, The Rooms, March 14-May 4.

I almost missed this show, first because I misunderstood the closing date, and second because the evening I decided to go the weather was terrible. But I persisted, and was rewarded with a gallery filled with Peter Bell's distinctive canvases, often huge pieces that were brilliantly coloured and iconoclastically configured. I had forgotten how much I liked his paintings.

Bell was born in England and taught in South Africa before moving to Newfoundland in 1966. He was curator of the Memorial University Art Gallery (which would later become the provincial gallery) for six years and an arts columnist with the (then) Evening Telegram until 1980. In both roles he was known to be somewhat ... frank.

Bell's work features a lot of the organic geometric shapes that were a new pictography of the late '60s and early '70s, a kind of hallucinogenic-scientific fusion. But it still stands up decades later and has retained the vigour to resist being dated. The works are engaging, both stunning and soothing, daring, disciplined, and their very own.

This exhibition was described as "the first in a collection-based series designed to highlight works by very important figures in the development of visual arts in Newfoundland and Labrador." Some might consider this an example of art curation taking the easy road, tacking towards crowd pleasers, but I say bring it on. We've got a lot of celebrate, maybe re-evaluate, and simply remind ourselves of.

No. 2: The Creative Thinker

Like most acclaimed Impressionist painters, Ilse Hughes started out as a dentist. The English-born Hughes moved to Labrador in the mid-1970s and then to St. John's in 1980. Her first solo exhibition was in 1997. Hughes is a dab hand at florals, landscape and portraiture, but she continues to play with theme and style. Her most recent solo exhibition - ""Infrared, an urban landscape," at the Red Ochre Gallery Oct. 9-29 - showed a series of mainly urban views, lots of downtown St. John's streets and the Battery and harbour, all viewed through a latticework of bare tree limbs in defiant red. It should not have worked, as the trees should have blared out everything else in the paintings. Her generous use of purple should have thrown everything askew as well. But they did not. The paintings were balanced, articulate, and struck out in a new direction. No resting on laurels here.

No. 3: Greg Bennett

I just don't know what to call him. He is adept and evolving and a whiz with light. He seems to be getting more and more interested in reflections and refractions, scenes centred on the sparking flumes of a bonfire, blocked into florescent wedges and bars on a store window, or dotted with the globes of streetlights. His paintings, which show at the Leyton Gallery of Fine Art, are often full of action or, more accurately, full of a sense of actions that are just passing out of frame, as a girl steps into an alley, or a woman moves past a sheer-curtained window, leaving their own mysterious eddies of narrative. He can infuse a canvas with dreams and myths. Plus he is the only painter I know of to be inspired by "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

No. 4: The Painting

This would be "The Gathering" by Gerry Squires. Almost everything he paints is so gorgeous it emits a siren call from the gallery wall (in this case, Emma Butler Gallery). But even so "The Gathering" is remarkable. It is big (60" x 84"), worked in oil on canvas, and its shows a half-dozen horses on a green field. The field, and the painting, is anchored by a slab of rock, one of the ancient leavings that mark the passage of glaciers. The horses graze to either side of it, four here, a pair there. More than half the painting depicts the sky, which is full of dark clouds that are shorn and pocked by a golden light. The light falls on the dun brown coats of the horses, the green grass, the still, layered rock. A quiet scene, packed with a sense of luminous allegory. I immediately thought: "Angels."

No. 5: Someone To Watch, Part 1

Robin Smith-Peck. Because her work is utterly her own. Her technique includes digital/relief printmaking and acrylic on rag paper. Her titles could be Episode 1: it began by looking at quiet places, or, Episode 2: not so far from his home she remembered the golden fish. And the media? A Mille-feuille of hue and surface. The result is as intricate and delicate as an onion skin. The recent examples at the Christina Parker Gallery's annual Christmas group show were compact vistas, beautifully toned with lots of drifting, misty pinks and blues, and spackles and pools of olive and gold. There are hints of Asian influence in their elegance and scale - these are small pieces - but they are also peculiarly evocative, slightly magic, and most singular things.

For Part II, see The Telegram Jan. 3.

Organizations: Red Ochre Gallery

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, England, South Africa St. John's

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