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Features / January 20, 2014

A Labour of Love

Mary Pratt's survey exhibition glows

The woman in the painting Girl in Glitz (1987) gazes openly at the viewer; there is nothing coy in her expression. She is canny, knowing. Poised, posed. She possesses an intimate and inquiring gaze. There is nothing aloof; she is engaged, steady. She has the hint of a pursed smile in her full lips that suggests bemusement. But there is a faint shadow under her eyes that evokes a depth, a seriousness.

There is nothing sexy about her bra; it is a boxy, washer-friendly, durable garment. But her shiny, polyester underwear radiates a hot/cool light that draws the viewer’s eye. I won’t use the word “panties,” as it’s infantilizing, and there is nothing babyish or faux-innocent about this woman. She is still young, admittedly, but already more woman than girl. The simple bikini-cut bottoms, gleaming with sexual promise, give the painting its name.

The title is, perhaps, ironic. The underwear is a particular kind, cheap and commonly found by the hundreds in the sales bins of department stores, white with a pattern of flowers, pastoral rather than showgirl-like or worldly, as the word “glitz” would suggest.

She is tanned and golden in the low light, against the uniformly dark background. Her body is slender, shapely; her breasts full. She seems to glow with health and a kind of plain, intelligent beauty. More desirous than desired—and this is key when we consider that the painter is a woman working in the eighties. There is a sexual power here that has at least as much to do with acknowledging the pleasure of the female model as it does with the viewer, and as such it’s a ballsy painting, full of provocation.

The mark of the jeans the model must have just taken off is visible on her stomach, the indentation of the snap just below her belly button; the waistband and zipper also faintly visible. These marks suggest that the clothes were removed not long before, and we gather from their impermanent traces on her skin that they were not particularly glitzy clothing items either.

The ironic title hints that the viewer should be suspect of the naked, unadorned, boldly objective surface of the painting.

Mary Pratt’s exacting surfaces warn us: There is more going on—always—than meets the eye.

This morning I heard Pratt’s voice on the radio and recognized the very particular cadence of speech as familiar. I knew it was the voice of someone whose talent I deeply admire, and whose work I know intimately, in the way one knows iconic work that has permeated one’s sense of identity, womanhood and place. I knew all of this about the work instantly, but it took a few seconds before I had placed who was speaking. In those few seconds, there was a mention of saran wrap and I thought, of course, Mary Pratt.

I had interviewed Mary in her home a couple of weeks before. She speaks with a distinctive rhythm, full of leisure and spritely energy. There’s an astute wit, and a shocking honesty. She is a gifted and generous storyteller.

Pratt said, on that occasion, in answering a question about the reception of the retrospective of 50 years of her work, “I’ve had so much adulation in the past few months. I’ve managed to cope, but if people keep being really nice to me it could affect me badly.”

“Why badly?” I asked.

“I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. I just do what I like to do,” she said. The art critic Tom Smart had said in a review of the Mary Pratt retrospective that the painting This Is Donna (1987) is among the best paintings of a woman in the world, Pratt told me.

“My physiotherapist had to pull out my neck and fix my knees after that,” she said. We had stopped in front of a print I hadn’t seen before, hanging in her porch, of partially peeled oranges suffused with sunshine. When I admired it, Pratt touched the glass with her index finger. She pointed to a narrow blue shadow that runs below one of the oranges, mooring it to the surface of the table.

“If this line were just a little longer,” Pratt said, moving her finger less than an inch, “I would like it more.”

Pratt gleans her imagery from photographs and renders a realism so minutely detailed it is more real, more present, than any object or scene that might be taken in with the naked eye, or even the eye of a camera. Ned Pratt, Mary’s son, who is also a photographer, told me that there’s a great deal of play between the photographic images his mother works with and her paintings. There are subjective interpretations of depth of field and of the reflection of light.

But these sleights-of-hand seem only to serve the rendering of the indisputable reality of the subject matter rather than distort it, whether it is the imprint of a denim waistband on a young woman’s naked flesh, or the folds and wrinkles in a piece of saran wrap.

By enhancing the detail in her painting, Pratt lifts her subject matter out of the realm of the ordinary and into the realm of the meaningful and sometimes sacred. Pratt’s shadows are usually subtle. She does not, for example, render the cloaking chiaroscuro of a late Rembrandt self-portrait, a painting Pratt mentioned admiringly when we spoke.

“The eye was a black circle with a tiny, tiny bit of a dot of white. What he says to me is, ‘Don’t come any closer,’” Pratt explained.

By contrast, Pratt invites. “Come close,” these paintings say. Her utterly familiar and out in the open subject matter invites. The moment of passing light, a consummation, a climax, just before the light wanes, invites with urgency. And the implicit narrative of her imagery invites.

Each of Pratt’s paintings offers a multiplicity of contradictory and complex domestic narratives. The story arc of these narratives is the play of light on the subject, a drama that captures the relationship between ephemerality, beauty and desire, and sometimes decay and death.

This Is Donna is one in a series of Mary Pratt’s paintings of Donna, who was the model shared by Mary Pratt and her then husband, Christopher Pratt. Some of the photographs of Donna, from which Mary Pratt worked, were taken by Christopher; others were shot by Mary.

Throughout the series of Donna paintings there emerges an intimate and nuanced study of the female model and of gender in painting. A study that is defiant, exploratory and new. Pratt delves into the meaning and construction of femininity: female sexuality, anger, bliss, vulnerability, domesticity, playfulness and loneliness. She renders an unabashed, commanding, female presence that is unique, and gorgeously lit up.

There is a quality of light in Pratt’s painting that paradoxically eludes reproduction, despite the fact that the paintings are drawn from photographs. Most Canadian viewers will be familiar with these images. Reproductions of Pratt’s work proliferate in poster form, on the Internet and on the covers of the short fiction of Alice Munro.

But seeing Mary Pratt’s 50-year retrospective, in a gallery, face to face, is a startling experience: the original paintings are luminous.

The light in Pratt’s paintings seems sentient, a living thing, a pulsation or emission, imbuing the paintings with an erotic and almost mystical desire. I say “almost” mystical because the light also wears the camouflage of regular daylight, or the ordinary light that appears in our microwaves before we close the door, or the last-minute light of day that swivels across the curves of a gold Mason jar lid, or the light that glows inside a dark jelly mould set on a silver platter. The jelly is so deeply red that it is reminiscent of sacrificial blood, or menstruation. There is something extra, a fullness that threatens to brim over. The light is so bright and exacting that it captures an instant of beauty that is both made and marred by its transience.

Pratt’s light often seems to come from within the ordinary domestic objects that make up much of her subject matter: a glass jar of preserves, the flesh of raw cod, a platter of cooked fish, a bowl of fruit. These objects are often wrapped in the reflective, transparent or translucent materials that cover and protect: aluminum foil, wax paper, saran wrap, Tupperware and patterned glass.

They are wrappings that seal, partially obscure, or hide what they hold because they are reflective, and also because they are the everyday fabric of domestic life and, as such, they have become invisible to us.

The theme of wrapping suggests a secret, or something soon to be disclosed. But this theme is in direct contrast with the artist’s masterful rendering skill and draughtsmanship, which suggest to the viewer that everything is exactly as it appears.

The subject is never obscured by visible brushwork. Rather, meticulous brushwork renders the concealing materials accurately: the tent of tinfoil over a cooling turkey, in Christmas Turkey (1980), the cold cream mask applied loosely, like paint itself, to Donna’s face in the painting Cold Cream (1983), or the semi-transparent freezer bag that covers a glass bottle of jam, making the label illegible, in the painting Specimen from Another Time (2001).  The tension of what is revealed and what is concealed makes the surface of these paintings vibrate with energy.

The ordinary wrapping materials in Pratt’s paintings were mostly designed to ease housewives through consuming domestic chores towards a new leisure.

Pratt began painting during the era that heralded in processed food, dishwashers and disposable diapers, microwaves and other household appliances and customs meant to free the woman of the home from domestic labour. But it was also a time when jams and jellies would be made from berries, picked and preserved at home. Fish, vegetables and game would have just as likely been purchased from individual fishermen, farmers and hunters, going door-to-door, as from a supermarket.

Mary Pratt was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and attended Mount Allison University, graduating in 1961. There she had studied under Alex Colville and Lawren P. Harris, to name but two. She married fellow student Christopher Pratt, and eventually moved to St. Catherine’s, on the Salmonier River, in Newfoundland in 1963.

In Newfoundland, Mary Pratt soon became consumed with domestic life. She baked 14 loaves of bread a week while raising four children, and often had as many as 15 family members and extended family at the dinner table. The rigours and demands of being a homemaker and mother, as well as the profound joy found in that experience, were what became her life’s subject.

Pratt describes the experience of being overwhelmed by a gut reaction to an object, knowing instantly it was a possible subject for a painting.

“I would see something and think, this has to be painted,” said Pratt. “This has to be not only seen, but painted by me. A totally erotic reaction to what I was seeing.”

Pratt’s paintings suggest the gentility of an upper-middle-class home. The domestic space is shown as a sanctuary of beauty, and all the effort to create cohesion and bliss is tucked away, swept under the carpet, erased, just as Pratt’s brushwork is invisible.

The invisibility of the brushwork recalls that domestic perfection is illusory: attainable, if at all, only for brief, shimmering moments. The still life Grilse on Glass (1980) shows an elegantly prepared dinner of fish, served on a glass platter shaped like a fish and stained, very faintly, with blood. The glass platter, with its glass fish scales and fluted glass tail, is a kind of ghost or palimpsest, making the actual fish appear sacrificial, an offering. The blood in the raised pattern of the glass fish scales is an accidental reminder of the relative violence of fishing, the work that has gone into the preparation of the meal, and the effort of sustaining the order and cohesion of romantic love, marriage, family and community. The traces of blood hint at the uncontrollable messiness of life, the turbulence of domesticity. The gaping throat of the headless fish is a sinister and bloody-looking wound.

About her relationship with her fellow artist and former husband, Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt is pragmatic and transparent. She described his encouragement, taking a photograph of a dinner table she was compelled to paint because he knew the light would fade before she could capture it, and knew the table would have to be cleared.

She spoke about Christopher Pratt’s sense of humour, trying to recall the punchline of one of his jokes about a painter, and she said, “I’ll have to call Christopher and get him to remind me.”

She is emphatic about his prodigious talent, and declarative about the amount of housework he did during their marriage: “None. He didn’t know how.”

She remembers a moment when the possibility of the dissolution of the marriage occurred to her.

“I went outside, dressed in a blue coat,” she said, brushing her shoulder as she spoke, “with a lambswool collar. And I sat on a stump on the other side of the river and thought about it. I realized things were going to be different than I had imagined.”

Pratt married a second time, in 2006, to the American artist and professor James Rosen. This marriage dissolved a short while later, but Pratt speaks of it wistfully as a positive experience.

“It is wonderful to know that one goes on feeling it at this age.” Pratt said, speaking of the erotic charge of love.

When I asked about the darkness in her paintings, she took my meaning literally: “Well, I like the darkness there. I like the dark colours, the really dark darks. You can find some wonderful colours there that people have to really look to find.”

I was driving over a steep and rutted hill while listening to the radio interview with Mary Pratt and as I crested the top of the hill, the lake below flashed like a giant sheet of tinfoil. The interviewer, Michael Enright of CBC, asked what Mary Pratt would like people to take away from her retrospective.

She said she would like them to love the paintings. She would like them to feel a charge.

The word “charge” is apt. The charge is the particularity of the light. There seems to be a rush of it in Mary Pratt’s work. The paintings are live currents, but also still, or stilled. It’s a light that cries out to be noticed in those moments when the cooking is done, the work has ceased, a family dinner is ready to be served, a lover is admitted, a piece of fruit is suddenly so ripe it must be eaten at once. Fruition.

The human effort of bringing about this beauty is concealed because part of this kind of sacrificial beauty is the illusion that it has come about on its own, an order of happenstance.

Pratt’s lifelong concern, evident in this exhibition, is the drama of light. How it falls, how it alters the ordinary objects it adorns, or how it pierces straight through. It is the light that provokes metaphor and meaning.

The light in these paintings is a stark reminder of passing time, of the significance of brief moments, strained toward and carried off. The paintings are rife with contradiction. They are beautiful/disturbing, graceful/violent, arousing/sated, gifts/sacrifices, confronting/comforting, objective/personal.  Something has just happened, or is about to happen. Immanence/menace.

And in these contradictions lies the interrogation of the idea of beauty, how it must unsettle us, how it must be uncovered from the cloth of the quotidian. How it is radical in its state of flux, subject always to decay; uncontainable.

This is an article from the Winter 2014 issue of Canadian Art.

Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore has written two collections of short stories, Degrees of Nakedness and Open, and three novels, Alligator, February and Caught, as well as a stage play, based on her novel February. Lisa’s most recent work is a young adult novel called Flannery. Lisa's work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, German, Turkish and French. She has studied conceptual art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Alligator and Caught, and her short story collection Open were nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her novel February was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won CBC Canada Reads in 2013. She is also the winner of the Writer’s Trust Engel Findley Award for Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Canada/Caribbean region. Lisa has written for the magazines Canadian Art, Walrus, and Elle, as well as the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Guardian.