Mary Pratt 1935-2018
This piece was written four years ago on the occasion of Pratt's career retrospective at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The best comment on her work however comes at the end of her long interview with Mireille Eagan at the bottom of the page.
"Yes I like the idea that you look at what is beautiful but I hope that for many of the paintings people will go away loving what they saw but wondering what else is there that they didn’t quite get."
The McMichael Collection is having a major exhibition of the work of Mary Pratt from January 18 to April 27, 2014. Pratt is one of Canada’s foremost realist painters. It’s easy to see the reasons for her widespread appeal. Her portrayals of domestic subjects, often bathed in a warm amber glow, are virtuoso displays of technique. This skill combined with the evocation of rural simplicity allows her work to easiy live beside popular favorites such as Robert Bateman or Ken Danby.
She obviously loves a challenge. Her exacting representations of coloured lights, translucent and reflective surfaces bring to mind photorealists like Richard Estes. Bravura pieces like Silver Fish on Crimson Foil , which renders cellophane wrap draped over tin foil, truly are visual marvels. In a video accompanying the exhibition she describes her own laborious process as "ridiculous"
But like her fellow Maritimers Alex Colville and former husband Christopher Pratt, her work often creates a sense of unease. Punctuating the show are images of bonfires, fish heads, a splayed moose and yet another splayed moose.
There's a wry feminist humor beneath the surface of her paintings and often her quiet scenes of eggs, chicken and baked apples share an undercurrent of violence. The photorealistic detail of jagged surfaces, juices and bloody flesh makes clear how much effort (and sometimes brute force) is involved in creating the comforts of home.
This recalls early feminist video work like Martha Rosler's "Semiotics of the Kitchen". It's an ABC of kitchen utensils that gets progressively more agitated.
There's a similar sensibility operating in Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman which presents daily household tasks in real time to tell the story of a woman's mental breakdown. The numbing boredom of the physical tasks depicted onscreen creates the expectation that something dreadful will soon break the monotony. Small details suddenly become fraught with significance.
Leah Sandals, writing in Canadian Art connects the labour of housework with the intense efforts necessary to create Pratt's work.
"Looking at the show and considering its themes, I couldn’t help wondering if housework—with its hours of repetitive labour grown out of or inextricably attached to the flashes of love and passion that characterize family life—might serve as an allegory for the process of Pratt’s still-lifes, in which a 1/60th of a second of intense feeling is translated via hours of meticulous, labour-intensive looking and brushwork."
Here's a recent interview with the artist by curator Mireille Eagan.
The Toronto Public Library has lots of books on Pratt ranging from career length retrospectives, to books of her prints, to a collection of her own essays:
The Arts Department on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library also has vertical files of gallery announcements, post cards, magazine and newspaper clippings dating back to the beginning of her career in its Canadian Artists File.
And be sure to visit the McMichael to see the retrospective: