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Reviews / October 12, 2013

Mary Pratt: On the Labours of Love

Some might think there is no better time than Thanksgiving week to talk about the art of Mary Pratt.

After all, Pratt is well known for masterful and luminous still-life paintings—almost always based on slides, and in the photorealist genre—in which food and its preparation plays a major role.

But when I visited a major touring exhibition on Pratt’s work at the Rooms in St. John’s this August—a show that is now at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and will also visit the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, MacKenzie Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in coming years—it was Pratt’s paintings of women, foregrounded at the exhibition’s entrance, that stood out most for me.

Such notable (and less celebrated) Pratt paintings include This is Donna (1987) and Girl in My Dressing Gown (1981). In both, a woman in plain underwear with a powerful, self-possessed gaze confronts the viewer.

Cold Cream (1983), which shows the same model with the titular unguent on her face, hair upswept in a towel, feels similarly bare, raw and vivid. And Barby in the Dress She Made Herself (1986) shows a bride (Pratt’s daughter) looking at once self-sufficient, apprehensive and sad.

That these remain unexpected takes on women—at least from a long-term art-historical perspective—is made explicit by a Pratt quotation that appeared in a wall text:

I really didn’t think that women should paint nudes. I thought that if you didn’t have an erotic reaction to a nude, you probably shouldn’t paint it, because wasn’t that what it was all about?…then, I began to think about it, and thought, “How ridiculous. If anybody has the right to paint the naked female, it’s another woman. It’s not a man at all.” And when I looked through the canon of naked women painted by men, there they were, these voluptuous beauties ready to say, “Well, climb aboard!” and I thought, “That’s not what women are like. We are not like that.” And so I changed my mind.

I smiled then, and smile now, at Pratt’s “well, climb aboard!” summation regarding the mood of the female nude in much of art history. I smile because it rings true. That Pratt could go through art school in the 1950s and 60s with intelligent, sensitive teachers like Alex Colville and still assume until the 1980s that the nude was not the purview of her gender remains, I think, instructive regarding the depth to which we have gleaned (and continue to glean) certain messages regarding the place of women in art and in visual culture.

Of course, aspects of women’s experience—and expectations thereof—also come to the fore in those celebrated Pratt still-lifes of food in various states of preparation. (Despite a narrowing gender divide in the domestic sphere, studies tell us that women still do the bulk of household work in Canada.)

Pratt’s still-lifes were hung salon-style in St. John’s to underline their connection to historical still-life practice and display—an unexpected choice. They show the raw and the cooked: two chicken carcasses sitting on a Coca-Cola box; pink salmon fillets in a Ziploc bag; a brown, dripping roast; eggs with the insides blown out through tiny holes for Easter-decoration making; cups of trifle on a silver platter.

In many of these paintings (I am almost tempted to call them shots because of their origin in photographs), there is a particular golden light for which Pratt has a great affection—a light which transforms the drudgery of household labour, perhaps, into a moment of transcendence.

Looking at the show and considering its themes, I couldn’t help wondering if housework—with its hours of repetitive labour grown out of or inextricably attached to the flashes of love and passion that characterize family life—might serve as an allegory for the process of Pratt’s still-lifes, in which a 1/60th of a second of intense feeling is translated via hours of meticulous, labour-intensive looking and brushwork.

I also wondered about the way Pratt’s artistic life intertwined with that of her former husband, Christopher Pratt, and vice versa.

The exhibition states that the notion of painting from slides was suggested to Pratt in the 1960s by her then-husband. Given the rushed quality of a couple of pre-photo paintings in the show, the suggestion certainly helped her find her form, and she relished the chance through photo-based process to “pay each gut reaction its proper homage.”

Yet when it came to This is Donna and Girl in My Dressing Gown—the two figures that struck me at the start of the show—Christopher was the one who shot the slides at Mary’s request. Another figure painting, Girl in Glitz (1987), was based on a slide Christopher handed off to her after one of his own shoots. The source imagery for the Dishcloth on Line series of 1997—in which the titular cloth goes up in flames, and is part of an intriguing exhibition section on offerings—was also shot with with his assistance.

How much does one spouse’s practice owe to the other’s? Such a question, I recognize, is as unanswerable as questions about anybody’s marriage might be. But it is also an issue that lingers in considering the show—and lingers when I turn my mind to Christopher’s work now, too.

Overall, this survey of Mary Pratt’s work aims to shed new light on her practice, and for me, it has.

It also underlines the connection between beauty and hard labour in the domestic sphere and elsewhere. As Pratt is quoted in the show in regards to her paintings of jelly jars, one of which is featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue:

Jelly is not just beautiful. It speaks volumes about the value of disciplined hard work. Perfect jelly takes at least two days to make properly. It is hot and somewhat dangerous work. Just have a look at any good cookbook!

Indeed, while the disciplined hard work of the domestic can disappear into bellies and houses like a flaming cloth evaporating against a night sky, Pratt captures some of its beauty and intensity for posterity.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via