Adrift in the light

J.M. Sullivan
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Tara Bryan turns her eye to icebergs in 'What passes for spring'

"What passes for spring," Tara Bryan's new exhibition at the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John's, could also be titled "What passes in spring."

The focus of all the oil on linen paintings, which range in size, is a single subject: icebergs.

This is the time of year they usually start floating along our coastlines. Bryan loves them, and has been painting them for years.

From top, "Interrupted," oil on linen. "Purple Haze," oil on linen. "Alone". "Meltdown (Red Head). All by Tara Bryan. - Submitted images

"What passes for spring," Tara Bryan's new exhibition at the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John's, could also be titled "What passes in spring."

The focus of all the oil on linen paintings, which range in size, is a single subject: icebergs.

This is the time of year they usually start floating along our coastlines. Bryan loves them, and has been painting them for years.

"They're so mysterious, and they pass by and sometimes we don't see them," she said. "I like that unpredictability of them."

Bryan was speaking in the gallery a few days after the opening, with many of her pieces already affixed with red "sold" stickers.

This show follows another one, at The Rooms, where she was recently artist in residence.

That was a good experience, she says, and one that allowed her to expand her vision - literally. One of her paintings was so big, The Rooms staff built scaffolding so she could paint the top of it.

She also had access to their archives, where she studied iceberg photos, adding to a cache she'd gathered from Provincial Airlines' observation archives and her own pictures.

Icebergs, as an object of portraiture, do present difficulties.

"I found it very challenging to get them to look like they're actually sitting on the water," Bryan explained. "Because of their reflection in the water, and what's going on in the atmosphere around them, they look in the photographs like they are sort of levitating. And also the fact that they're so bright, they're so bright and light - even on a dull day light is bouncing off of them - so to make them look like something other than just a big white thing is a challenge."

Some icebergs come embedded with layers of dirt and rock and colour, and Bryan has painted them, but those pieces did not find their way into this show.

This was something Bryan didn't realize until the show was up, "that for some reason they weren't the focus."

Instead, these paintings display her philosophy of less is more.

"I'm always trying to leave things out, to see how little information is needed. And to find a place to stop where there's enough detail to create the impression that I'm trying to make without going overboard and making them too photographic."

So these icebergs are adrift in their own luminous aura.

"Meltdown (Red Head)" balances "the coolness of the iceberg and the warmth of Red Head, which has a lot of iron oxide so it's really orangey, red, purpley colours. And I feel like this painting is really successful in trying to present the details in the light, and the reflections and the shadows on the iceberg, the texture in the water, and the iceberg underneath the water, without overpainting it."

Whereas a painting like "Purple Haze" is conveyed in a "palette that is different, it is much more even, it doesn't have the swings of contrasts. The sky is light, the iceberg is light, the water is light. I really love those weird colours that you get in fog. Once you start looking at the fog, maybe I'm hallucinating, but I see violets and yellows and greens. The moisture of the air in fog is always moving, and the light is changing, and it's really hard to get that in a painting. The painting is flat, the paint is not changing."

But, Bryan said, she solved those issues in this piece.

"This painting, I feel, was a gift. Every once in a while I have a painting that just happens, magically. That was not a struggle. Everything happened in an orderly fashion. The colours worked."

The tones came together, and the brushwork was not overplayed.

"Because it's really easy standing in front of a painting to get drawn into the details, so I'm constantly pulling myself away, slapping myself in the face and saying, 'Stop!'"

Working in oil helps this process, "because it gives you time to work back into the painting, and you can always paint over it."

She chooses linen over cotton as a surface because it springs back from the hard pressure she uses, especially when she first starts painting.

She likes to be outdoors, and to paint the outdoors, but not to paint outdoors.

"The light changes all the time. And either it's too cold out or it's too windy. I don't like hauling stuff around."

She expects to paint more icebergs and then go through her photos and paint what catches her attention, waiting to be captured by her next big idea.

"What passes for spring" continues at the Christina Parker Gallery on Plank Road until June 5.

Organizations: The Rooms

Geographic location: St. John's, Red Head, Plank Road

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