New works ‘luminously unromantic and artfully staged’

Joan Sullivan
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‘John McDonald: New Paintings’ on show at Emma Butler Gallery

John McDonald’s new solo exhibition includes 14 oil paintings on canvas or wood; generally they are fair-sized but he plays with the dimensions.

The “New Paintings” include a variety of scenarios (McDonald often very deliberately composes his works) — night views of the harbour, historical imagery from the seal fishery, wildlife, and portraiture that is both luminously unromantic and artfully staged.

“The Queen” is a play on/homage to the famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes (by an unknown artist, and a 17th-century work based on an earlier, lost portrait also by an unknown artist).

It’s immediately recognizable, with the gaze, the crown, the collar, the implements of office — although Elizabeth’s orb and sceptre have switched hands and the objects exchanged for a sealer’s gaff and animal pelt. Likewise her ermine-trimmed cloak is a zippered fur coat.

Nonetheless the slightly androgynous model uncannily hits the regal high note.

A second piece of the same scene is rendered slightly differently and enhances the artifice with a circle of red lipstick and lead-white skin, once the height of Tudor fashion.

There are four scenes of the St. John’s harbour and Narrows at night.

These are configured with scrims and punches of light, as it dollops down the Southside Hills, or dots like morse code from the aft of a supply vessel heading out to sea. They are brimming with a cool tranquility, a winter stillness.

There are also works poised like cinematic stills.

“Doorway,” for example, has a young woman opening a door, looking back at someone or something. As she passes through the opening she is exiting or entering a situation, something we do not get to see but can imagine. Her clothes are contemporary, and the materials as well as her skin and the interior around her are painted in very warm tones, peaches and browns.

This is also characteristic.

Although McDonald’s colours are always natural, each piece seems to hold to its own spectrum, like the metallic whites and blacks and golds of “The Calm,” or another work showing a young couple picnicking in a field, all al fresco red wine and flirtation, with the red of her dress bouncing off the blue sky overhead.

Continuing with McDonald’s very strong interest in sealing, there is a view of two sealers in a storm, and one of a hand brandishing a gaff like a sword of defiance. Two other works show wild animals, a lynx and a coyote, against weathered facades and rooftops. He often places animals on these worn peripheries, where one world visually transgressing on another.

“The Crossing” is something else again, a night scene of cars and streetlights with an illuminated crossing sign transporting an uplifted male figure. It is completely otherworldly. Although the setting is fairly representational the episode is fantastic and the juxtaposition between the stylized form on the crossing sign and the floating human body unsettling. This has the realism of the dreamt.

“John McDonald: New Paintings” continues at the Emma Butler Gallery until July 12.

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Geographic location: Narrows

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