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Mary Pratt’s paintings contained a short story’s worth of sublimated pain and angst

Mary Pratt's immaculate photorealist surfaces often contained a short story’s worth of sublimated pain and angst.

Handout, Mary Pratt/The Canadian Press

Apples – red apples – sometimes seem like the key to understanding Mary Pratt’s work.

Here was an artist of the everyday and the edible, and what could be more quotidian than an apple? She ate them for breakfast herself, she said.

But the “wonderful wicked apple,” as she once called it, also has a sinful lore – and she channelled it. To look at the Red Delicious in Ms. Pratt’s Glassy Apples (1994) is to think of Eve as readily as pie. The reds are a little sanguine. The skin glints like it’s coated with something. Cut in half, one seems to lie belly up and vivisected.

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This, too, was characteristic of Ms. Pratt, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83. Her immaculate photorealist surfaces often contained a short story’s worth of sublimated pain and angst.

The comparison has been made before, but Ms. Pratt really was the Alice Munro of painting – and not only because, as with the Nobel winner, she was among the finest practitioners of her form this country has produced, an art-world giant not only in her own province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but across the country, a status capped by the National Gallery of Canada’s triumphant solo retrospective of her work in 2015.

Both women became great artists while doubling as housewives and dwelled in their art on the darkness and frustrations of being a married woman in their generation: the drudgery, the sexual daydreams, the curdling of spousal love, the grinding work and sudden disasters attendant on motherhood and the female body.

As with Ms. Munro, Ms. Pratt is also sometimes misapprehended – and badly marketed – as a nice old lady who produces comforting, homespun artwork for other nice old ladies.

The cover of a popular coffee-table book of her work features a close-up from the relatively staid 1999 painting Jelly Shelf, with its luminescent Mason jars and gauzy soft focus. The volume could just as easily have advertised itself with the electrifying, unsettling portrait Cold Cream (1983), whose subject stares back at the viewer with despondent blue eyes, her face lotion a reluctantly worn mask.

The powerful latent feminism of Ms. Pratt’s pictures is now widely acknowledged – not least by brilliant feminist critics such as Lisa Moore and Sarah Milroy – but she struggled for years to be taken seriously.

When she and her husband were studying together at Mount Allison University in the 1950s, in her native New Brunswick, their professor Lawren Harris (son of the Group of Seven painter), told her, "You know that if two artists are married, only one is going to be successful. And in your family, it’s going to be Christopher. So why don’t you just understand that and look after the house and the children?”

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That’s what she did, for years, moving to Newfoundland with her young family while he built his career, doing every bit of the housework because, as she once said in an interview, Christopher “didn’t know how.”

She never stopped painting though and had something of a breakthrough when she began working from photographs in the late 1960s. It allowed her to capture moments of suggestive beauty while doing the household rounds and return to her canvas later, when she had time.

Her painterly skill may also have worked against her reputation. Sheer wonder at the technical accomplishment of rendering the world so precisely can distract from deeper readings of her work. The food paintings, especially, often look downright appetizing at first glance.

That impression is usually deceiving. The yolk-filled half shells of Eggs in an Egg Crate (1975) carry on a motif in her domestic scenes of food at once split open and carefully contained, in a bowl or box or sheet of foil. (Probably no one has ever painted tin foil better.) Its homely subject matter and gasp-inducing realism belie the painting’s thematic freight: Here is a study of a woman at once painfully emptied out and closely hemmed in. It is shocking but not surprising to learn the picture was finished shortly after the death of her day-old son, David, and the miscarriage of his twin several weeks before.

The yolk-filled half shells of Mary Pratt's Eggs in an Egg Crate (1975) carry on a motif in her domestic scenes of food at once split open and carefully contained, in a bowl or box or sheet of foil. Its homely subject matter and gasp-inducing realism belie the painting’s thematic freight: Here is a study of a woman at once painfully emptied out and closely hemmed in.

The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, Memorial University of Newfoundland Collection

Ms. Pratt herself has encouraged viewers to look for the troubling seams in her work. "People will find out that in each one of the paintings, there is something that ought to disturb them, something upsetting,” she once said.

So we have Moore seeing a suggestion of menstrual blood in Jello on Silver Platter (2001) and Milroy intuiting a woman’s legs and feet bound for ritual sacrifice in the trussed moose carcass of Service Station (1978). Who can say they are wrong? Viewers who ignore the Gothic strain in Ms. Pratt’s work are not looking closely enough.

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For all the quiet suffering suggested by her work, Ms. Pratt’s paintings are not the work of a miserable woman, much less a defeated one. Her work reveals an artist not merely hinting at buried trauma, but also revelling in the improbable beauty of ordinary things, the red currant jelly in glass or the salmon head in a sink.

The dictum of her father’s she once quoted – “No man is big enough to make me hate him”; now, there’s a line that could be taken out of an Alice Munro story – sounds like a mantra of female resilience when she repeats it.

We’re lucky, meanwhile, that no inanimate thing was too small for her to love, either – or at least to lavish with her own kind of dark, shimmering attention.

Mary Pratt's work reveals an artist not merely hinting at buried trauma, but also revelling in the improbable beauty of ordinary things, as seen in Fish Head in Steel Sink (1983).

Karen Stentaford/Private collection

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