Kim Dorland was looking quite outdoorsy indoors the other morning. He was wearing a plaid long-sleeved cowboy shirt untucked over a T-shirt and baggy blue jeans, serious-looking leather boots, and a tight black tuque from which protruded unruly thatches of hair. It was a fitting ensemble for the artist whose rising reputation (and fortunes) in the last few years have been based, in many instances, on paintings of forests and lakes, trees and hills, campsites, sky and fauna. Fitting, too, for the location he was in: the McMichael Canadian Art Collection northwest of Toronto, where for decades devotees of Tom Thomson, David Milne, the Group of Seven and other artists besotted by the Great North Woods have made pilgrimages.
Looks, though, can be deceiving. Dorland concedes, at 39, to being a “reasonably proficient” canoeist with a growing interest in the outdoors, but jokes that “if you threw me in a canoe, handed me an axe and told me to survive, I’d be dead pretty quickly.” More seriously, he adds, “I don’t want to position myself as an avid outdoorsman. My identity as an outdoorsman is not part of my practice. My work really is about the perfect psychological moment. Sometimes that moment is in nature. Sometimes it’s in my living room.”
Dorland is having a a major career moment as well. In recent years, the artist has headlined well-received exhibitions at important commercial galleries in New York, Montreal, Milan, Santa Monica and Los Angeles, among other cities. His larger canvasses are now fetching prices in the five figures. And his McMichael show is one of the most anticipated of the fall Canadian-art season. “If we think back four or five years ago, Kim even then was on everyone’s radar and he was there for the loudness of the paint he was using,” says Richard Rhodes, editor of Canadian Art magazine. “But I think if you ask most people now what they’re connecting to, it’s actually his imagery, which seems to have real roots in traditional Canadian landscape content but at the same time has an emotional tenor that makes it feel really immediate and visceral.”
Adds Rhodes: “Does Kim need Tom Thomson? No. He’s already achieved lift-off. He doesn’t need Tom or the Group behind him.”
Dorland is, in fact, a city boy, mostly, with a large studio – he calls it “the lab” – near the intersection of Queen and Dufferin in downtown Toronto, and degrees in fine art from York University and what is now Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Now, though, he seems on the cusp of a new apotheosis, and it’s coming courtesy of the McMichael, an institution famous more for exalting past glories than deifying contemporary aspirations. Starting this weekend and running through early January, the gallery is presenting close to 90 Dorland paintings – the artist’s biggest public outing to date – under the rubric You Are Here: Kim Dorland and the Return to Painting.
At heart, it’s a solo show, taking up five rooms, but a solo show with a difference: Dorland’s work – notable as ever for its size, superthick impasto, arresting textures, bold composition, narratives both allusive and elusive, and a fluorescently efflorescent palette – is positioned cheek-by-jowl with more than 50 carefully selected painting
s by Thomson, Milne, Carr and four members of the Group of Seven.
The exhibition is the result of an invitation extended to Dorland earlier this year by the McMichael’s chief curator, Katerina Atanassova. Be our artist-in-residence, she told him. Go into our vaults. Look at the art. Wander the grounds. Explore the valley. Visit Thomson and Group of Seven haunts. Then produce a bunch of paintings, et voilà: We’ll create a dialogue between past and present, a refutation of the notion that painting is passé, and a validation of landscape as a fit subject for contemporary art practice.
Roaming the McMichael the other day as preparators hustled to complete the installation of You Are Here, Dorland said he greeted Atanassova’s offer with “a big yeah” – and “reservations.” His admiration for the Group, and especially its muse, Thomson, is well-known. After enduring a tough childhood in east-central Alberta, he left his mother at age 16 to move into the Red Deer home of his girlfriend (now his wife) Lori Seymour, where, as a self-described “going-nowhere teen,” he found himself thumbing enchantedly through a book on Thomson and the Group. “Before I found art,” he writes in one of the panels for You Are Here, “I had no sense of the future. I could have ended up in a dead-end job or even jail, not because I was violent but because I was thoughtless. Then I found this. It is all I wanted.”