PM Ritchie: Layers of Light, Art Gallery of the South Okanagan, 2005

Curatorial Statement by Curtis Collins while he was Director/Curator of the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan (now Penticton Art Gallery)

Exhibition: PM Ritchie Layers of Light 2005

The Layers of Light exhibition offers viewers a particular perspective on the art of Percival M. Ritchie (1917-2004) with regard to her specific manipulation of light as a central concern in the paintings she created over the course of sixty years. And this essay represents a logical continuation of the discussions presented in Roger Boulet’s Percival M. Ritchie: A Retrospective issued by the Art Gallery of the south Okanagan in 1994, and Ihor Holubizly’s Percival Ritchie published by the Kelowna Art Gallery in 2002. As a newcomer to the South Okanagan Valley I have been impressed by both Ritchie’s art and impact on the local cultural community. Her career speaks to the importance of regional art in Canada as a critical counterpart to metropolitan movements, while the distinctive quality of translucent imagery she achieved can be traced through the reoccurrence of distinctive subject areas.

The Forest

The forest as subject matter is mostly definitely a quality of Canadian painting that has persisted for almost two hundred years and at the outset of Ritchie’s career in the late 1930s, the Group of Seven’s barren wooded tracts were the epitome of cultural nationalism. Her paintings of trees spanned over half a century and a work such as The Brown Waters, Charlevoix, circa 1999, is indicative of the manner in which Ritchie came to render plant life as simultaneously transparent and opaque. The relative starkness of this oil on linen contrasts the subtle colour differences that allow an old growth forest to emerge onto the picture plane in her earlier Wet Woods, Queen Charlottes, 1983. Ritchie’s practice is thus marked by a layering effect in which the general presence of absence of light may be used to identify where a specific work falls in her oeuvre. “Always I am after the essence of a thing, the central core of what makes a person tick, the essence or emotion of how light touches a tree.” She came to fully understand such play of luminosity not as an emerging artist in Montreal during the early 1950s or in mimicry of trends from British Columbia’s lower mainland through the latter half of the 1900s, but as a painter working in the cultural hinterland of the South Okanagan Valley, for example, her White Pines Laurentians, circa 1950, was created via a heavy application of paint to define the trees, a process common to many artists active in Central Canada at the time.

The Figure

I would suggest from the mid 1970s to the late 1900s is the period when Percival Ritchie had come to realize the most important qualities of light in her painting. Among her works the one, which could be best, described as a signature piece is, Charlie and Gavin, oil on linen circa 1997. The rolling hills behind are integrated into the two central figures, producing a tension between the foreground and background. This visual reverberation is further emphasized by the painter’s use of soft blue tones to describe the sky as well as the figures. “I find I can separate areas either in landscape or in human figure, by blending of tone values, by inter-relating various parts of the painting, not by lines, but by light and shade, and cool and warm tones; the human figure eventually fades into the landscape and as one is dependant upon the other, they become one.” Thus the subtle chromatic interdependence of the figure and the landscape as well as other subject matter in outdoor settings, including canoes and buildings, is an undeniable marker of Percival M. Ritchie’s painting. And in a greater Canadian context her artistic production signifies a critical regional cultural philosophy.

The Figure in the Landscape

The placement of the figure in the landscape in Ritchie’s images ranges from humans that dominate their natural surroundings to those who are virtually subsumed by their environs. A telling example of how she embraces an economy of means to convey light a well as emotional conditions is her Self Portrait, 1990. In this rare reflection of herself in the world, one cannot help but notice how the human form is barely perceptible from a rather mysterious setting due to its diminutive scale and convergent tonal values. Ihor Holubizky aptly refers to this figure-ground relationship as “radically different” to the traditions of “historical-pictorial painting.” Perhaps it is the isolation which Ritchie desired and felt as a painter that has been evoked here alongside a symbolic reference to the limited pockets of cultural activity in the South Okanagan Valley. This sense of solitude is not unlike that achieved by the Québec painter Jean-Paul Lemieux via his stark characters in barren settings. The loneliness that pervades many of Ritchie’s figures in the landscape is also evident in Schooner Cove, 1990, as a single human being stands beside a land formation on Long Beach, Vancouver Island. The pale greens, blues and yellows that delineate the trees in the distance and rocks in the foreground are consistent with the figure’s colour scheme. Such as even handling of human versus non-human forms sets the former in a ghost-like state, as does the fact that light appears to pass through various parts of these same animate and inanimate entities.

The Canoe

The Aboriginal peoples of British Columbia as well as their art and technology have long served as identity markers for Euro-Canadian painters in Victoria and Vancouver ranging from Emily Carr to Jack Shadbolt. While the problematic circumstances of such cultural expropriation in the name of Western art can not be denied, these images also operate in a more immediate visual realm. Ritchie’s oil on canvas entitled Dugout Canoe, circa 1979, features a mode of transportation common to the Northwest Coast’s original inhabitants and it emerges ever so slightly from an enveloping mist or fog. Layers of faint green and blue paint at once define as well as obscure this abandoned watercraft. Could it be that Ritchie’s vacant canoe is a discreet reference to Aboriginal cultural loss in this nation’s westernmost province?
The Landscape

The South Okanagan Valley proved to be an endless source of inspiration for Percival M. Ritchie’s art from the late 1950s to the onset of this century. Her oil on hardboard Sagebrush, 1966 displays a nascent stage of light effects in paint that would occupy her art for years to come. The sagebrush in the foreground is infused with a semi-transparent equality that leads the viewer to a similarly colour keyed sky in the background. Such a rendering of the local landscape is best termed as a “purposeful form of regionality,” and yet Ritchie’s unique transcriptions of the land would extend well beyond the clay cliffs around her home in Naramata to encompass locations throughout British Columbia and across Canada. An oil on linen of 1984 entitled A Beach, Queen Charlotte Islands exudes a confident harmony of diffused light and softly modulated colours. By the 1980s Percival M. Ritchie had reached a zenith in her artistic career, a fact that was soon recognized throughout this region. A review by Prema Harris of the painter’s first solo show at the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan during the winter of 1986 characterized her landscapes as follows, “The artist works with values rather than perspective to create the illusion of depth.” Ritchie’s many sojourns across this country served to test the flexibility of her purposefully limited palette as she encountered new colour combinations of the land as well as atmospheric conditions. The artist relied on memory and sketches rather than photographs to reproduce natural locals including the open ranges of the Prairies. Saskatchewan 3 is part of Ritchie’s final series and this work from 2002 conveys the province’s seemingly endless golden fields that are matched by what has become commonly known as the big sky. Such an effortless shift in imagery can be attributed to decades of exacting artistic commitment.

Buildings in The Landscape

Buildings and figures often play a secondary hidden role in Ritchie’s landscapes, as is the case in Saskatchewan 3 and The Brown Waters, Charlevoix. However, there are instances when a home or cottage becomes the central focus of her renderings. In Scotland I, 1978, a collection of modest dwellings are brought into the foreground through gentle articulations in blue, green and grey of their respective high-pitched rooflines and low walls. Roger Boulet incisively distinguishes the painter’s move to a fainter palette in terms of the viewer’s experience. “One notices that the work grows progressively paler, as if Ritchie now wishes to merely suggest a subject or an idea, inviting the viewer’s own reverie to complete the picture, to colour it, as it were, with the unique personal experience each viewer has.” Percival M. Ritchie’s physical travels from North America to such distant places as Western Europe seem minor in comparison to the incredible artistic terrain she had covered from her early days in Montréal to the end of her life in Naramata. A work entitled Fourteen Island Lake, circa 1939, features a red roofed lakeside cottage set in an enveloping forest and this oil on hardboard provides very few clues as to the eventual trajectory of this painter’s oeuvre. And yet, a tiny out building rendered in the same green range as the trees might be considered as an aesthetic kernel of her unique facility with paint.

The distinctive subject areas which give order to this exhibition and essay are intended to highlight what both myself and the artist’s daughter, Jane have determined as a predominance of luminous effects in Percival M. Ritchie’s art. I can only hope that the focus here on this painter’s ability to create images via the layering of light is a reasonably accurate portrait of her basic visual concern. Furthermore, the time has come for regional artists to be considered as crucial to a history of art in Canada that honours cultural, economic, social and geographic differences.

Curtis Joseph Collins