Intuition plus discipline equals art 

By Barbara Black

You could be excused for thinking the big paintings on the walls of the FOFA Gallery are abstracts. In fact, they’re landscapes layered with old maps. They’re arresting reinterpretations of Canadian history.

<em>Houbart´s Hope (Yellow)</em>; Crimson Lake, 2001-2004, acrylic on linen, 221 cm x 312.4 cm. Magnifying glass

Houbart´s Hope (Yellow); Crimson Lake, 2001-2004, acrylic on linen, 221 cm x 312.4 cm.

The five monumental canvases were inspired by the centuries-old search for the Northwest Passage, a waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The artist, a descendant of the great explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie, thinks a lot about the Northwest Passage, which global warming has made a source of passion once again.

Landon Mackenzie got her Master’s in Fine Arts at Concordia, and was the first woman to teach painting and drawing here. Now she’s an inspiration to geographers and poets, and her works are in national and international collections. In an artist’s talk on Jan. 9, the day after 190 visitors crammed the small gallery to launch the show, she talked about her artistic education.

She grew up influenced by the great painters and sculptors, and wanted to go to art school. A relative told her “something was happening in Halifax,” so she enrolled in NSCAD, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

The “something” was the conceptual movement, which emphasized the idea over the thing created. Ephemeral and performance art were hugely popular, and, somewhat surprisingly, there was a revival of printmaking, which Mackenzie took to, and gave her a foundation when she started painting “in secret.”

NSCAD in the 1970s was art school at its most informal. Teachers showed up sporadically, and there were no marks. She took one drawing course, and the results were so dismal, she claims the teacher made her promise never to take another. But she feels now that NSCAD taught her to trust her intuition, to constantly accept and reject her efforts until the work feels finished.

Then she came to Concordia for grad school, and the change in expectations was radical. Debate wasn’t about the idea behind the art: “It was about blue, and red.” The driving motif was form, not content.

Arguing with teachers Yves Gaucher and Guido Molinari was “like running into a brick.” They urged their students to ask tough questions: What is optical space? How did we arrive at pure abstraction? Representational drawing was frowned on; they were so obsessed with purity that “you had to smuggle in a horizon line.” René Blouin taught her to cut and edit. “He said there was so much garbage out there, you’d better make it good.”

In this environment, Mackenzie learned self-discipline and technique. She hadn’t left her old, intuitive self behind, though. A performance piece she did while still a grad student, called 03 23 03, caused a critical stir. Four years later, she won first prize in the Quebec Biennial of Painting for her Lost River Series. She had begun to marry her love of the land with her drive to make art. Now, every day, she draws on both strains of her art education.

Her huge, glowing canvases are the result of years of intermittent work. She works on several at a time, revisiting them again and again, taking them off their frames, rolling them up like the old maps she loves, and shipping them from one studio to another across Canada, from her home in British Columbia to her summer place in Prince Edward Island.

It was at graduate school in Montreal that she learned the luxury of working in a big space. In the late 1970s, the garment industry had gone bust, and studio spaces were opening up in industrial areas.

She taught briefly at Concordia in the 1980s, but was hired away by the Emily Carr College of Art, where she still teaches. She said about half her students come to her painting and drawing classes from non-artistic backgrounds out of a desire to “live in the moment.”

The Internet has exponentially added to our visual input, she explained. We soak up images and choose from among them at a dizzying rate, but at some point, many people feel the urge to stop the input and create. “We are very sophisticated visually,” she said, “but we’ve killed the experiential part in our schools.”

The FOFA Gallery, on the main floor of the EV Building, is showing Mackenzie’s Houbart’s Hope, plus two exhibits by students, Carnivalissimo, by Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo, and Bleui (Middle Sky), by Katherine Jerkovic, until Feb. 9. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Concordia University