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Alex Emond is 62 and has been making art outdoors in the 150-year-old plein air tradition for more than two decades. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)
Alex Emond is 62 and has been making art outdoors in the 150-year-old plein air tradition for more than two decades. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

Banff artist continues historic tradition of painting outdoors Add to ...

He sat back and looked at his picture. “It’s starting to happen a little bit, without flogging it to death.” Normally his work is exacting and precisely realistic, but he liked the looseness of our experimental speed painting. He broke out a packet of shortbread cookies.

I looked up. The sky was changing again, lightening in places and intensifying with bolts of brighter blue in others, the haze firming into ropes of cloud – as if the sky had risen late, and was only now showered and dressed and ready for work. “More product,” Emond said, stabbing his brush into a mound of blue paint and turning the painting upside down, in the hope that gravity would help him make a sky.

Setting seems to focus the attention of contemporary artists

Even contemporary artists come back to working outdoors. The setting seems to focus their attention.

Modern expressionist John Hartman recently turned to watercolours to paint the mountains of the Columbia Valley. Brian Jungen, the indigenous B.C. sculptor, has filmed his moose hunts. Michel de Broin, a Montreal artist, made a video of a shirtless lumberjack felling a streetlamp with a chainsaw at night in suburban Montreal. All this work was made outside to make us think about what passes these days for nature.

In 2009 at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icedlandic performance artist, presented a video in which he and a composer pal perform modernist bluegrass music in a series of majestic outdoor locations near Banff, including on a grand piano on the middle of frozen Lake Minnewanka. The Banff show will display paintings of his ex-girlfriend’s house that he made on an easel at 3 a.m. in subzero temperatures by the light of the Icelandic midnight sun: a parody of plein air painting and his own pathetic life, but still trying to achieve what outdoor painting is good at, which is capturing the moment – in this case, of despair, as the artist realizes how pointless it is to repeat what others have already done. “I am just trying to paint an honest subject in an honest mood,” Kjartansson noted in the catalogue of the Musée show. “I am painting something because I have promised myself I will paint it. It is a useless action.” This is how we all live, sometimes.

Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist, is famous for having pushed a block of ice through Mexico City until it melted. In his off hours he makes small oil sketches of outdoor scenes, “out of pure pleasure and the desire to retain moments of pure happiness.”

Painting doesn’t have the ‘edge’ that defines modern work

By a quarter to 2, three hours after he started, Alex Emond had finished his painting. “I think it’s better to just stop there,” he said. He slipped the painting into a plastic grocery bag, and we tramped back to the car and town, where we ate our sandwiches.

I have the picture in front of me now. Emond wouldn’t claim it was anything more than a rapidly and happily executed experiment. But I find I can look at it for a long time. It does not have what Jesse McKee, the 28-year-old curator of the Walter Phillips Gallery, refers to as the “public edge” and the “larger social implications” that define the best contemporary outdoor work. Emond’s painting is the work of a private and personal practice. It requires no explanation.

I called Kitty Scott, to ask her if it was old-fashioned of me to like Alex Emond’s painting.

“I think yes and no,” she said. “We live in a time when people still write with pencils, but we have computers. It’s among the great pleasures people have, no matter what their skill set, to sit in the landscape and make something beautiful. And I find that quite lovely, quite vital. All of these people, whether they’re working in a more traditional form or more modern, they’re all attempting as best they can to capture a moment. And that moment always escapes them. It always escapes your grasp.” But, she added, “art is not just one beautiful view any more.”

She’s right. But I still look at Emond’s painting, and when I do, I remember the details of the pleasant morning I spent in the company of someone who does what he does because he can’t help but do it, regardless of what it pays him. His decades of quiet commitment feel almost like a performance piece, except that he didn’t plan it. I remember how fresh the conversation was in the clearing, and how the light sat up and gathered round the mountain, as if it and the day were a fantasy. I see all that in the picture.

“The art gallery has replaced the church as a place of worship,” Jesse McKee told me. This is true. But you can also just step outside.

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