As a plein-air and studio artist, Jim Davies has left his interpretative mark on virtually every kind of landscape in Alberta. In 1985 at Lethbridge’s Southern Alberta Art Gallery, it was the wide-open prairie in addition to the forested landscapes of southern Ontario. A Masters of Art graduate from the University of Alberta, the Toronto-born Davies was still finding his feet when “States of Being” opened.
At the time, what was different, no, what was show stopping about Davies acrylics on canvas was the frequent inclusion of a solitary figure in expressive landscapes that themselves seemed more memory-based than observed. This suggestion of a human presence was enough to stop many for a second look including myself who responded to the freshness of what Davies was doing.
A year later, in the seminal survey “Spaces and Places: Eight Decades of Landscape Painting in Alberta”, Davies impressed again. It was said he could be seen in the context of new figurative painting then current internationally or at least an example of postmodern narrative art suffused with psychological content. It was also observed that the artist’s lonely depictions of western highways did for the prairies what Jack Chamber’s art did for Ontario’s 401.
But during the time in which Davies has added other sites to a wide body of work including the boreal forest and the dramatic badlands, with or without figures, contemporary landscape painting has been largely critically and curatorially out-of-favour. It’s been a chilly climate in Canada for years.
In this new exhibition at the Scott Gallery, Jim has turned his full attention to the Rockies, a minefield of revered art and artists stretching back to the 1880s when Canadian Pacific Railway handed out free passes to artists to come and capture this ‘new world’ for visitors and colonizing settlers. So, the question really is what more can be done with this subject?
Well, from the point-of-view of this Edmonton-based artist quite a few things.
Starting with the perspective of often looking upwards at the mountains and skies above the human presence is evoked through what is commonly seen now: cell phone towers, satellite dishes, construction platforms, cranes and so on. In this supposedly natural setting, Jim has quite deliberately turned this nature-rich landscape into a most unnatural place. Even his depiction of what can be large skyscapes high above can be turbulent and unsettling, ready to storm as in “Lodgepole Confrontation” and “Night Tower”. Are these environmental works, plain and simple? That’s a question each viewer can answer on his or her own.
Titled “Iron Light”, this display of eighteen oil paintings still makes subtle references to the theme of roads and what a traveler might see looking upward out of the window. In addition, through heightened colour and light − each built up by thin layers of paint followed by opaque touches of highlights at the end – this contemporary ‘scenery’ has as much validity as any Group of Seven alpine paradise of so many decades ago. There is plenty of it around to be interpreted and remarked upon, what is strange is that it’s taken someone from outside the mountains to see it for what it is.
Mary-Beth Laviolette, Canmore AB
(Mary-Beth is the author of three books on Alberta art and works independently as art curator and writer.)