In Canadian art’s long and unswift adaptation of an avant-garde, landscape painting yielded to an important reduction, an essentializing that rendered place ancillary, and emphasized form. Locations became “the church,” “rural Quebec.” Figures, if any occurred, were pushed to the shoreline, too distant to describe, or bent over their fields, identified by the line of a curved back. Edwin Holgate flattened laundry out like thumbnail color fields; Jean Paul Lemieux swept a canvas in snow. And while, by the late 1940s and early 1950s, many critics agreed that Canadian art landscape painting was “stagnating,” or “faltering” on its inevitable road to Modernism, our continuous engagement with “fantasy landscapes” – landscapes that could be any place – has merited, by now, our recognition that it wasn’t a stop-over to abstraction, but its own parallel course.
Ned Pratt is the obvious child of his parents, Christopher and Mary Pratt, both established hyper-realists who secured seats in the contemporary canon of Canadian painting in the mid-late 20th century. It’s useful to point this out, as to get it out of the way. Ned is particularly his father’s son. His photographs profile the same landscape (Newfoundland and Labrador), and issue a similar exactitude, a gelid rigor.
What sets the younger Pratt apart is his attention to the demarcation of spatial entities, to what the Germans term Grund and Abgrund: declarative space or ground (Grund), and that which “gives way under our feet,” as Alberto Giacometti termed it, the ground that becomes an abyss (Abgrund).
Sectioning these spaces in Pratt’s images is, often, the horizon line, a device nearly unbroken across the many prints in his recent showing at Nicholas Metivier Gallery (Pratt’s first with the gallery, an indication of the artist, 52, now evolving from his long-held status as “emerging”). In several instances, these divisions arrive near the top of the picture plane, positioning us at a height looking down (see Lobster Shed, Northern Peninsula, 2008), or on our knees, looking up at a near subject (as with Trailer With a Red Stripe, 2011). In others, the horizon is doubled by an object, or suggested like a trompe l’oiel (Insulator, 2014, is almost comically beguiling).
The horizon line achieves a disruptive ability and an affecting reversal in St. Philip’s Beach (2016), a dramatic composition that forms a rejoinder to seascape artists including Lawren S. Harris and David Milne. This, coupled with Starboard Buoy (2016) and Connaigre Peninsula (2015), epitomize the central tensions in Pratt’s framing.
The depth of his dark sea in St. Philip’s Beach is only pulled back by a foregrounding kame of snow (Lord Bryon could narrate this image: “without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and uknown / Dark-heaving;– boundless, endless, and sublime –/ The image of eternity. / of the sea”). There is an unlikely lightness of being in the sky above the water’s ink, an optical inversion at the height of winter, and a parallel for our grounding ridge of hoary white. Pratt calls up Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (c.1809), here, a startling picture of solitude, infinitude, and the spectrum of light and depth that spans from sky to water. Pratt includes no figures, however, and never does.
The “grand tournant” of Jean Paul Lemieux’s painting career arrived in the 1950s, when he countered a sweeping scale with an eerie economy of subject. In these large, two-toned canvases, he bordered on paralleling Mark Rothko’s light-emanating color fields, while pushing forward the Romantic Sublime of painters like David, or J.M.W. Turner (Lemieux’s The Noon Train, 1956, feels like a centurial update on Turner’s iconic Rain, Steam, and Speed, 1844). Pratt occasionally calls up the Romantic Sublime, himself, in his attention to the thick atmosphere and uniform palette of Starboard Buoy, for instance. But it’s his spatial organization that feels more compelling, a sectioning-off of the foreground from a close-heeled abyss.
There’s a connection to be found, here, between the Romantic Sublime and what the late art historian and curator Robert Rosenblum termed the “Abstract Sublime.” Painters like Rothko and Barnett Newman exemplified this best, perpetuating the emanating light or shrouded affect of 19th-century atmospheric landscape painters. He writes:
Like the mystic trinity of sky, water, and earth that, in the Friedrich and Turner, appears to emanate from one unseen source, the floating, horizontal tiers of veiled light in the Rothko seem to conceal a total, remote presence that we can only intuit and never fully grasp. […] In the anxieties of the atomic age, [we] suddenly seem to correspond with a Romantic tradition of the irrational and the awesome as well as with a Romantic vocabulary of boundless energies and limitless spaces.
In Pratt’s pictures, within the silent bracketing of space that a ridge of snow, a strip of wood, or a sea-level horizon can provide, there lies an enervating allusion to nature’s abysm. His control is constant, though he grips something boundless.