Questions on canvas

Tara Bradbury
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Exhibit explores Newfoundland communities, probes beyond the landscape

What more can be said on canvas about the Newfoundland coastline? What more can be painted, sketched or photographed about the rugged edges of the island, the bipolarity of the sea or the filter of local fog?

A lot, according to Steven Rhude.

The Quebec-born, Ontario-raised, Nova Scotia-based painter is showing new pieces at the Emma Butler Gallery on George Street that infuse Newfoundland landscapes with a narrative and provoke questions about outport life in visual documentary form.

Rhude’s pieces are as much about history as they are about art, and they tell a tale that’s familiar to everyone. Three weathered oars, lined up, unused, against the coastline. A shed, grey from age and the elements, dilapidated and falling to the ground. A dory, pinned to the clothesline and literally hung out to dry. His pieces are thoughtful and important.

“Not everybody gets it,” Butler says of Rhude’s work. “They’ll say, ‘Why is there an oar in the middle of a landscape, or an old RCA Victor radio?’ He puts these cultural icons into the landscape that just gives it a presence. You know you’re living with something beyond the landscape.”

Rhude spent two summers travelling around the island, gathering information about the communities to which he was drawn and learning what makes them unique from other places. He has compared his work in the past to that of journalists, who conduct interviews, write what they see, and form a story that can get imaginative or political.

With his work, Rhude poses questions that are left unanswered, with themes of isolation, urbanism and the casualties of the cod moratorium. He uses a palette that is predominately primary in colour, and paints in oil on canvas, panel, copper and aluminum, easily grasping the rushing of tall grass, the movement of the ocean and the air in the sky. His current show also includes two small serigraphs of fish — one a mackerel, the other a red fish — shown as whirligigs.

Rude sees a certain irony in his depiction of objects like boats, buoys and sheds.

“As I see it, there is a modern vitality of shape and form to the boat, the buoy, the shed and the lighthouse,” he writes in his artist statement. “Qualities both abstract and figurative. Ironic, since these objects predate modernism by centuries. So in them, there is a sense of the minimal before the minimalist. Modern before the modernist. Formal before the formalist. Their maker’s intent wasn’t to create something beautiful; more like something utilitarian. However, it just so happens their intent was beautifully realized.”

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Rhude’s work is his unusual technique. Realist in genre, modernist in vision, Rhude’s paintings, noticed upon a close look, have been splattered in a very controlled way with tiny flecks of blue, red and yellow paint.

It’s not pointillism; the specks have been added on top of his images to bring them to life in an almost three-dimensional effect.

“The joy of Steven’s work is that you keep thinking,” Butler said.

“It’s more than a feast for the eyes, it’s something for the intellect, too.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Ontario, George Street

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