Percival Ritchie, Kelowna Art Gallery 2002

Curatorial Statement by Ihor Holubizky, Senior Curator, The McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario

Exhibition: Percival Ritchie, Kelowna Art Gallery 2002

Percival Ritchie

To follow the well-trodden path, or the path of least resistance, provides a degree of comfort and familiarity. Umberto Eco wrote of such a journey through the woods, and of the option, “to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not.”

Presenting this exhibition of Percival Ritchie—a life and times, and a career as an artist that stretches more than sixty years—poses one of those challenges of accessibility, to re-examine what we know about art ‘in the woods of history’. She lived and worked during remarkable and tumultuous times. In the course of her career, Canadian art has witnessed the emergence of a “national school,” post 1950s international aspirations, and the renewed awareness of regional voices. In broader historical terms, her times have encompassed the centenary of Canadian nationhood, (as she reached her first half century), and the nascent twenty-first century. Ritchie was born in Pointe-au-Pic, Québec, in 1917. She moved to the Okanagan Valley in the mid-1950s with her husband Frederick. It was not exactly ‘in the woods’, but pioneering nonetheless when compared to her formative years in Québec and the cosmopolitan, culturally-active Montréal, studying and exhibiting from 1926 into the early 1950s, as well as her sojourn to Paris, studying in 1936-37. Her sphere of influence and appreciation was the vanguard of mid-career or senior artists such as Edwin Holgate, Will Ogilvie, Goodridge Roberts, Anne Savage, Ethel Seath, and later, Jacques de Tonnancour. Removed from the milieu, by necessity she developed her own vision and raison d’étre, work that is a purposeful form of regionality without the pitfalls of the provincialism. Neither has the signal weakened with the passing of time. Her work has its own sense of place, and Ritchie has engaged other places through lived experience and in relationship to a studio practice.

This exhibition is not meant to be a retrospective: the presentation and articulation is mindful of the retrospective organized by Roger Boulet for the Art Gallery of South Okanagan in 1994. Rather, this is a perspective of view, a positioning which builds on that exhibition and its biographical cut: re-viewing works and bringing the view of her work, her sense of place, up to date as Ritchie continues to work with a spontaneous incandescence and vitality.

Painting Place, Region and Time

Carolyn McHardy has contributed that which art historians often shy from-to consider the yet-unwritten history of artists in this region. It is unwritten because regions are often considered peripheral to the main event. I touched on the topic of regionality in the Jim Kalnin catalogue, Stream. Some of the commentary bears repeating, and amplification. The term region is, and perhaps always will be, a contentious one. There are different types of regions: those bordering major cities are sub-urban, and those distant enough, out of the sphere of urban gravity, are regarded as rural. Often the notion of rural region is conflated with a languid pastoralism. It is without argument, a slower time, bounded by the seasons. Artists (naturally) engage with that slow time, just as artists in the city embrace accelerated time, hence the dynamics of urban kineticism-the lure of bright lights, jangly and populated compositions and sometimes alienated visions. The urgency of the micro-managed world shapes days into multitude of short and specific tasks, why urban dwellers have day-timers, split into hours and half-hours: time management, rather than spatial awareness. Such time is of small consequence to Ritchie. Moreover, she often does not bother to fastidiously date her works; many are ascribed with a “circa” date. “Slow time” is not really slow, but a longer rhythm that requires a sustained, peripheral view. Space, as it relates to place is characteristic of the her approach “over time.”

An example is her circa 1966 painting, Sage Brush—done at the mid career age of forty-nine—using the meta-vocabulary of modern art, as American Georgia O’Keeffe would do, to underscore the consequence of the inconsequential (relative to the urban perspective). Like Jim Kalnin, Ann Kipling and other artists located in the Okanagan, Ritchie’s expressions are an expanded field. The historian of “type, style and time” could “date” Ritchie’s work based on art historical precursors (the curse of history), and thereby assume derivation and use this as proof of the (apparent) absence of development. Modernity, however, need not always rush forward with urgency. An artist can be modern at the top of a mountain (or “under the volcano”), in the desert, or the valley. If the sagebrush doesn’t change in thirty-four years—it makes repeat appearances in the foregrounds of Winter 111, Okanagan, 1988, and Gethsemene, 2000 —there is no need to change it. Ritchie developed a succinct and abbreviated means to express that thing, more than a “style”. It is her own, essential form, and allows her to consider other things in each of these works.

Ritchie’s mature style arrives as a localized brushwork, a reduced palette, and a selective eye. She paints from memory, never from life or photograph. The moment she finds in Sage Brush leads to a sustained communion with “place,” as is her feel for the undulations of the land, not copied from A.Y. Jackson or Arthur Lismer, but linked in spirit to David Milne’s (1882-1953) wilderness solitude locations, his “Painting Place.” Without riding the high waves of current style, Ritchie is nonetheless aware of the currents, but chooses to solve her own problems as a painter. It may not be necessary to re-solve every problem-hence; the sagebrush is one of those solutions, and a constant companion.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Ritchie’s Okanagan paintings are archetypal-her intent is not to deliver the final word, and the return to subjects is more than familiarity or habit (habit forming pictorial sentiment). Anyone who has lived in the Okanagan will recognize the unique qualities of topography and climatic phenomena. It is a “place” that brings art history-the national school-to life, and stirs the desire to paint the scenic, though most Okanagan residents are content with the picture window. Ritchie’s landscape of observations are not encyclopedic, to capture every moment, even the fleeting light effects that are, without question, dramatic and awe-inspiring. Drama is not her objective, nor a melancholy, if the latter is the opposite pole. End of Winter, 1995 presents the bare essentials of form-to-content, and a subdued tonality. Sometimes the long perspective (such as one experiences in the flatlands of the Prairies), disappears in the Okanagan cloud phenomena-an inversion-that hovers like an apparition, an alien spacecraft, in suspended and eternal time.

Ritchie’s sense of place extends beyond the view out of her window. Her travels have taken her to Ireland and Scotland (her family roots are Irish, Scottish and Welsh). Québec, her birthplace and emotional home, the Queen Charlotte Islands and coastal areas of British Columbia, the high plains of interior British Columbia, and Saskatchewan. She speaks of spiritual sites, but also brings spirit to those places and is conscious of who has gone before. A prominent example is Emily Carr. One of the dilemmas of mainstream art history is that the Queen Charlotte Island site has been conferred upon Emily Carr (1871–1945) in the way that Giverny will always be equated with Claude Monet, even though many artists traveled to Giverny in the wake of Monet, to have their ‘say in the matter’. Ritchie recalls, “I…felt (Carr) breathing down my neck, because it was her country—she was the one who painted it.” At the same time, Ritchie is able to appreciate the deeper cultural pool: “I felt as if I was trespassing, because…it belongs to the natives.” One work from the series is Moresby, 1985 : there are two First Nations figures in the foreground with a directed gaze, not in protest not (necessarily) ‘victimized’: the artist’s view with proselytism. Wet Woods, 1983, is the most Carr-ish of the works—the stylization of the verdant forest—but Ritchie looks ahead, at the path beyond, rather than the verticality that is characteristic of Carr’s works, thereby encoding her own voice. Canoe Tlell River, 1985, is the most “Canadian” of scenes-more than a stereotypical commune with nature, but evoking the spirit of modern consciousness. The image could be that of the every man/woman, or associated with Pierre Elliot Trudeau, politician, statesmen, philosopher and woodsman. If not mythological time—”once upon a time”—mythologies are at work.

Figures in the Landscape

Ritchie’s view, as indicated in the preceding section, is more than landscape/pictorial. Figures appear in a radically different way to historical-pictorial painting, where a tiny figure in the landscape had sign value, i.e., nature is awesome, but we exert our presence. One of the remarkable works is her Self Portrait, 1978, a miniscule figure in the distance that is a portrait of spirit and place. The painting is all midground, yet has a feeling of “infinity.” (Her Infinity titled painting, 1971, is another such moment.) There are very few out-of-body paintings, let alone “ghost” figures in Canadian art, with the notable exception of William Blair Bruce’s The Phantom of the Snow, 1888. It has been suggested that the hooded features of the “walker” and “phantom” are those of Bruce-a self-portrait and binary apparition. Ritchie’s self observation is out of body, rather than the mirror-reflection scrutiny of self portraiture (W.B. Bruce, in contrast, moves in for the close-up). Her transparent figures (not to be confused with ghosts) appear over the past dozen years. She speaks of the relationship of figure and land, that we are a part of it (nature only becomes a landscape when observed, therefore a human construct); “I would draw the figure [so it is] translucent, so you could see the environment coming through.” In works such as Alluvial Silt 2, 1994, Charlie and Gavin c. 1997, and Porte-au-Persil, 1999, the figures are placed with their backs to us. We look through them and view as they are viewing-a direct correlation of body and landscape. They are watchers, and we are the watchers.

In other figure-grouped works, such as Low Tide, c 1985, Ritchie speaks of how people relate to each other when taking ‘a walk in the woods’, an observation she makes while on her own walkabouts, a restorative spiritual experience that is common to human nature. The antithesis can be seen in Edvard Munch’s (Norwegian, 1863-1944) aptly titled 1896 lithograph, Anxiety, a family grouping. There are comparable generic figure compositional approaches to Ritchie’s, as in the sculptural work of Alberto Glacometti (Swiss, 1901-1966. Ritchie cites him as an influence). Yet there is a distinction between Ritchie’s isolated, dwarfed figures and Jean-Paul Lemieux (1904-1990). Lemieux’s world is explicit, he identifies social station and often transcribes the history of Québec, Ritchie’s figures stand outside of social historical time. Ritchie does, on occasion, engage the particulars of portraiture, usually family members, such as the portraits of daughter Valentine, with her child, and grandson Charlie. There is strength of graphic composition, and like other works, a studied balance between detail and form, without overweighing the work with unnecessary details.

Devolution: Spirit of the Times and Place

The hardest thing an artist can do is to speak of the times-to reflect and comment on world events and remain true to their art, the particulars of their place. Simply put, events of magnitude generate images that are the grist in mill of news broadcasting. In 1960 Ritchie gave a mixed media collage work the enigmatic title, Devolution; “I did ‘Devolution’ soon after that beautiful photograph of our hemisphere first was published. It blew me away. The photo is the centre of the painting. Then I realized what a mess the world was in …the pollution, over-population …all the things that became causes and were protested. For some reason, I left it alone, but I did not throw it out. I knew I would finish it one day. In 1997, I looked at it again and decided that nothing had changed, so I did a little work on it.” Devolution has no prior exhibition history, but for an artist who culls her work on a regular basis (she tells of her children making a trees house out of her discarded paintings), this modest collage is kept for some reason. The catalyst image is one of the most significant photographs for humankind-the first extraterrestrial (out of body) view of “our place.”

Ritchie recounted the impact of the 1960s, as her children were growing up, in a threatening world, and how social values systems were changing and challenged: the Vietnam War was one event of global magnitude (the Oroville, USA-Osoyoos, Canada border; south of Naramata, was a frequently used crossing point for American draft dodgers and conscientious objectors). The civil rights movement of the USA also provided subject matter (some of these works are no longer extant), and later, the Gulf War, Kosovo, and a work that was on her easel during January 2002 visit, relating to the post-September 11th, 2001, American war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

Ritchie’s view of the times (as with her Moresby painting) is not alarmist, and comes from deeply held humanist conviction, as she notes the writings of Jean Vanier and Thomas Merton as being inspirational. The inspiration for Crucifixion, 1992, came while driving through Armstrong (north of Vernon, BC): “the sky was black… there was a yellow field… and I was very upset by the Oka crisis. (The painting) has the dark sky…yellow grass and a native in the foreground [with] three totem poles falling to the ground, in the background.” This type of free association is the catalyst for Gethsemane, 2000, once again, as a result of a trip, through the Richter Pass (14 km from Osoyoos) during the Fall: “it was a very beautiful day and the hills were very brown. I had been listening to the (Jean) Vanier tapes… and reading Thomas Merton. I had these brown hills floating around in my head and I thought, ahhh, there’s Gethsemane. The central figure could be with of those three men standing there (Vanier, Merton, and the third a monk and close friend of Ritchie) or the last ‘picnic’ the apostles had together, if you call it a ‘picnic’.”

The Whiter World, Form and Content

Ritchie also makes note of American artist Ben Shahn’s book The Shape of Content. Shahn writes, “Form in art is as varied as idea itself. It is the visible shape of all man’s growth; it is the living picture of his tribe at its most primitive (I read this as ‘essential’ not the anthropological, pejorative meaning), and of his civilization at its most sophisticated state. Form is the very shape of content.” Shahn elaborates, explaining that form and content have been “forcibly divided by a great deal of present-day aesthetic opinion.” He was not positioning himself, as an image painter, against the non-objective art world, but posed fundamental questions, how to understand the relationship of form and content without reducing art to the formal, measurable elements-flatter, brighter, etc.-or worse, only to consider the form of the day, the plat du jour, Ritchie’s Mon Pays, 1963 has that very combination-an abstract painting with a particular revelation. Flying back from Montréal after her mother’s funeral in the middle of winter, she observed the fields below covered with snow, and was determined to put that dual moment of personal, emotional experience dislocation into a painting. She titled it after the Québécois song of that moment, Mon Pays by Gilles Vigneault; “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.”

While the abstraction aspect of that painting may have been an anomaly in her primary practice, it corresponds to the global view, looking down, in Devolution. Her use of white, however, continued in the 1960s and 1970s: “I wanted to try and see how far I could go with the canvas and how far I could take it (with) as little in it as possible. I really believe in the power of the understatement… to paint without any embellishments… to paint (as she cites the writing of Hemingway) without any adjectives.” Ritchie’s near-white monochromatic Scottish paintings of the late 1970s stand apart from conventional interpretations. She notes, “Scotland is not necessarily white… I wanted to paint just the minimal amount… or express as little as I could and come across fairly strong.” She concludes, “I suppose you might say I was a minimalist.”

White is considered a sign of modernity-the emptying out of mimesis, as well as colour symbolism. In its penultimate state, the white on white painting-Kasimir Malevich, Ben Nicholson (his later work), Robert Ryman, etc.-is a tabula rasa or clean slate, not customarily associated with expressions of regionality. Yet there is a kindred example in the work of Venezuela painter Armando Reveron. In 1920, at the age of 31, he moved to Macuto on the Caribbean shores, where he lived as a recluse for the rest of his life. Between 1925 and 1936 Reveron painted near-monochromatic white landscapes, challenged, as Luis Pérez Ormanas writes, by “the light of the equator. Reveron, still faithful to the world and visible phenomena, has taken painting to the primordial state in which only its deconstructed materiality is seen, the virtual matter of its image… a kind of filtered painting in a state of pure possibility: ‘truth in painting’.” There is no art historical development rationale that can explain how Reveron came to this defining moment, nor how Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960) came to equate his “lasting affection for impasto” with Québec. Although she has not continued with the predominantly white paintings, a restrained palette is still evident in Ritchie’s most recent work. In one of these, Saskatchewan 2, she divides the horizontal format into three parts, not a triptych per se, but another way of organizing space and directing the view.

The Persistent View

As noted at the outset, Ritchie was in the sphere of exemplary models during her formative period, and benefited from mentors such as Edwin Holgate, Ethel Seath (1879-1963) and Anne Savage, but did not seek group association after moving to the Okanagan. The works by Canadian artists that she acquired are noteworthy, among them, Maurice Cullen (1866-1934), Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942), Edwin Holgate (1892-1977), Robert Pilot (1898-1967), and Anne Savage (1896-1971). It is another form of communion, rather than demonstrating pedigree, and indicates how her solutions differed. Maurice Cullen’s contribution to Canadian modernism is often under-appreciated, perhaps a consequence of the two solitudes and the progenitor-mythology surrounding the Group of Seven in English Canada. Michael Greenwood wrote of Cullen’s Logging In Winter, Beaupré, 1896, “(he) avoids… mannerism, holding to the candid viewpoint and precise tonal values of the realist, without sacrificing the fresh colour and painterly handling of the Impressionists.” Clarence Gagnon’s oil on panel, The Storm, 1919, and a small 1937 Robert Pilot painting in Ritchie’s collection have the economy of means that is likewise evident in her small painting Storm, 1962. One of the lasting legacies of the national school can be found in small panel paintings. There is no room for the narrative, only the “business” of paint itself. So too for Anne Savage’s c. 1955 oil on masonite landscape, adding a chromatic audacity. Ritchie’s restrained palette is an audacity of a different order. It is not surprising that Ritchie acquired a 1930 Holgate woodblock print Fish Houses, Labrador. It is characteristic of Holgate’s attention to detail-the flavour and texture of locale-and a single standing figure in the foreground, yet maintaining a strong visual composition, “the shape of content.” Needless to say, Ritchie’s transparency approach to the figure is an invention of her own. Invention is another modernist hallmark, or more to the point, the refinement of previous artist’s solutions, in a chain of solutions.

Donald Kuspit makes reference to a 1965 article in which Harold Rosenberg describes the spirit of regionalism as improvisational, “anti-formal or transformal,” more concerned with encounter than style, a “non-look.” Colleague Chris Varley suggested there are artists who are unquestionably modern, but have engaged that idea (not the “idealism”) without the script from-the-centre. These are “artists who got a glimpse of modernism (however defined) through a crack in the door, … and made efforts to understand, respond, contribute… even change the shape of the ‘programme’.” Making up the script is akin to music improvisation in music, which comes from a body of knowledge. Percival Ritchie knows the rules, engages firsthand observation, and knows how to improvise. Contrary to Rosenberg’s assertion she continues on both paths, the look of her work is inseparable from the encounter. She understands the need to walk through the woods.

Ihor Holubizky

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