With the death this year of Alex Colville, Christopher Pratt, at 78, is now Canada’s most famous living painter. Pratt, in fact, had a long association with Colville, first as his student in the early 1950s at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and then as his friend. There is also the superficial affinity of their painting styles, sometimes described as magic realism or hyper-realism, even though their themes and content were wildly divergent. (Pratt likes to call himself a “precisionist,” practising “a kind of reined-in, squared-up Romanticism.”)
Next year, the Art Gallery of Sudbury is hosting a massive retrospective of his prints, including Pratt’s recent work in that idiom. Meanwhile, there’s Christopher Pratt: Six Decades, a new, career-spanning, lavishly illustrated monograph co-published by the Sudbury gallery and Toronto’s Firefly Books. The brainchild of Tom Smart, former director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the book features many works never before seen by the public, Smart first met Pratt 30 years ago while curator at Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery and he’s kept in touch with the artist ever since, always visiting him whenever he’s in Newfoundland. As he says, “There is a consistent, inexorable cadence to [Pratt’s] career.”
The Globe and Mail recently met with Pratt at the Mira Godard Gallery, the artist’s Toronto dealer since 1969, where he was scheduled to autograph copies of Six Decades.
The U.S. painter Edward Hopper was a salient influence early on. As you know, some Hopper fans like to visit Cape Cod and other places looking for the locations of some of his paintings. Have your fans ever said to you, “Mr. Pratt, I’ve driven down Burgeo Road on Newfoundland’s southern shore and it doesn’t look a thing like your painting?”
No, but if they did drive down Burgeo Road, that’s exactly what they would say. Similarly, they might say, “I’ve been to Bear Cove, Strait of Belle Isle, Cape Norman, wherever,” and, in some cases, they might recognize a source if, say, a painting is based on a specific lighthouse. But otherwise no. The paintings sort of grow out of a variety of encounters and experiences, but they’re made out of whole cloth, if that’s the right expression. The physical space is just the prompter. Then, as I work up the image, taking it from stage to stage, it strays further and further away from the actual place. For me, the final test is, how does it look? You can incorporate all the theory of lines and shapes and divisions of rectangles you like, but when you set it up and step back from it and say, “Oh sure, that line is where it should be in terms of the diagram, but it ain’t the right place in terms of the experience of the painting,” you move it. It’s like Cubism.
But it seems some of your more recent oil paintings, like Spring Equinox: Afternoon at Ferolle Pt. (2008), feel more representational and less imagistic, that you’re giving us more detail and, with that, a viewer might actually be able to find the real-life particular.
Spring Equinox is a good example of how place-specific it gets. I mean, I’m always, always mindful of place. Sometimes when I’m working up something I’ll ask, “Where is this?” or “Where has it gotten to be?” – that is, if it’s something totally invented. There’s a painting [in the book] called Bear Cove, On the Strait of Belle Isle. It’s of a red building. Bear Cove’s about 800 kilometres from where we live, and we drive through there about five times a year, summer and winter, and every time I look for that building. But it isn’t there. So I think maybe it’s in some other cove, but it isn’t in Bear Cove. Somehow something up there got turned into that as I sketched and doodled at home and tried to remember a particular time, a particular day, a particular mood.
There’s a show of paintings by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte called The Mystery of the Ordinary up in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. You’ve talked about the importance of the ordinary in your work. Is that title something you think could apply to a show of yours? Magritte talked about how he wanted to “restore the familiar to the strange.”
Well, I never contradict or try to import another person’s words of wisdom. I think for me it’s a matter of celebrating the ordinary. I have no sense of enlarging it. In reality, I’m surrounded by ordinary things. Some people might think where I live is not ordinary, but it is in my experience. I like Magritte’s paintings and would admit to some influence, but I have never been much influenced by many European painters. I’m very much a North American painter. My origins came largely from looking at reproductions of American painters. I don’t think I ever heard of the Group of Seven until I was 16 or 17. At home we got Time magazine, Life, Look, Esquire. Esquire was good for the centrefolds. Pretty rich fare when the most erotic thing in Canada seemed to be the ladies’ pages in the Eaton’s catalogue.
Would you describe yourself as a religious person, or at least a spiritual person? As much as there’s been desolation or austerity in your art, there’s been reverence, too.
I’d describe myself as spiritual. I wouldn’t describe myself as an atheist, that’s just too strong a word. I belong to a generation and come from an upbringing where that conclusion is more difficult to come to. I’ll go up to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery [in St. John’s] and I’ll say hello to my father [who died in 1980], knowing damn well he can’t hear, and I’ll say hello to my mother [dead in 2001], knowing she can’t hear. And then I’ll wander over to another corner where the first real girlfriend, if you know what I mean, is resting and thank her. That’s the kind of people we are.