McClellan grabs the light of night

Joan Sullivan
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Exhibit

The houses and skies, streetlights and pavements of Brenda McClellan's "Night Lights of St. John's" present an alchemy of structure and replica, form and impression. These oil-on-canvas paintings fuse shapes with deftly illuminated expressions of themselves, the row housing, guy wires, cars and top-floor windows rendered in a rich palette with pools and wedges of bright gold and deep purple, blocks of red and puddles of vanilla.

These make pulses and streams of energy, and eddy and cascade into unexpected representations, especially as sculpted with the light. The light sources are sometimes natural, like the moon, but more often artificial, like streetlights or car brake lights, and frequently domestic, cast by lamps. But the interior lighting is most often gazed on from outside (with two exceptions, interiors of Erin's Pub and The Duke of Duckworth). These paintings come from the outside, and they are influenced, enlivened and made a bit rowdy by the weather.

"Water Street Summer Friday Night." - Submitted photo

The houses and skies, streetlights and pavements of Brenda McClellan's "Night Lights of St. John's" present an alchemy of structure and replica, form and impression. These oil-on-canvas paintings fuse shapes with deftly illuminated expressions of themselves, the row housing, guy wires, cars and top-floor windows rendered in a rich palette with pools and wedges of bright gold and deep purple, blocks of red and puddles of vanilla.

These make pulses and streams of energy, and eddy and cascade into unexpected representations, especially as sculpted with the light. The light sources are sometimes natural, like the moon, but more often artificial, like streetlights or car brake lights, and frequently domestic, cast by lamps. But the interior lighting is most often gazed on from outside (with two exceptions, interiors of Erin's Pub and The Duke of Duckworth). These paintings come from the outside, and they are influenced, enlivened and made a bit rowdy by the weather.

City showcase

They all show St. John's, and the city brings a lot to the picture.

There is the odd glimpse of harbour, but these city portraits are not really about St. John's as a port of call. The real focus and core of the paintings, in most individually and in the exhibition overall, are the configurations of downtown streets and lanes, from the cadence of the city's main drag of Water Street, to the beat of a four-house long alley. The architectural arrangements and colourful tones of commercial facades and Gower Street houses fill the frames, sometimes fairly close up, and sometimes from a loftier and more distanced view, capped by a Rooms and Basilica skyline.

They are highly atmospheric. This aspect is embedded in their titles: "Foggy Night," or "Skyline on a Wet and Lonely Night." These are moody pieces, distinct, the lines misted and the colours drenched. In contrast there is the gorgeous magic hour punch of "War Memorial, Duckworth Street," with that enchanting indigo pitch of dusky sky, the light just turning from twilight as it outlines the restaurants and shops and public statuary. Other works zoom right in on such details as Bond Street Stoops, moving close in on the homes and their promise of comfort. But, aside from that duet of pub scenes, the paintings don't enter. The real night is outside.

As was the painter.

Elements

McClellan did some pieces en plein air, but was working mostly from photos. Even those, of course, she needed to be outside to take, and she worked at all hours and in all seasons. "The rain gives the best reflections," she said. "The worst weather is always the most interesting."

She went out at night to "wait for the light," for people to turn on their lights at home, or start their cars, while the daylight waned and the night came on. This gave her a scope and especially lots of reflections that she played with and channeled into orbs and sprays and spears of lights, pools and rivulets of asphalt.

Some people have requested that she paint their street, but she can find the view too linear. Something needs to jump out, or be askew. And McClellan will often complete a canvas, and then sign off with one daring flourish.

"You finish and you think, that's boring, and you go like this (she motions as if she were swirling an almost-set view looking west over St. John's, and sure enough the painting has fabulous umbrae of paint, in scuds, sprockets and wedges). You have to hold your breath and hope for the best. Every time your work progresses you have to hold your breath."

"Night Lights of St. John's" continues at the Red Ochre Gallery until Feb. 27.

Organizations: Night Lights, Red Ochre Gallery

Geographic location: St. John's, Water Street, Gower Street Duckworth Street

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