Commonplace Treasures

Both Mary and Christopher Pratt find inspiration in the everyday

At the entrance to the career retrospective of the artist Mary Pratt hangs a large, brilliantly coloured canvas titled Threads of Scarlet, Pieces of Pomegranate. It shows two pomegranates, one with its leathery red skin intact, the other broken in two, scattering seeds and bleeding red juice.

Mary Pratt painted Threads of Scarlet in 2005, the year her divorce from another iconic painter, Christopher Pratt, became final. They had at that point been separated for a dozen years. She writes in the accompanying text that she was embarrassed when she saw this canvas, with its obvious burden of pain, hanging in her dealer’s gallery: “So much of myself was on view.” Following the divorce, Christopher married Jeanette Meehan, his studio assistant.

Although their marriage is long over, Mary and Christopher Pratt are still joined in the public mind, two extravagantly gifted painters, both born in 1935, both graduates of Mount Allison University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, both practitioners in their own way of a kind of magic realism associated with Atlantic Canada, sharing the same Toronto dealer. It is safe to say that they would not have become the artists they are without each other’s support.

Each has an exhibition and book about his and her art published at roughly the same time. I caught up with the retrospective of Mary Pratt’s work at the Art Gallery of Windsor in early October; it will continue to tour until 2015, ending up in London, England. A show of all of Christopher Pratt’s silk screens and lithographs will open at the Art Gallery of Sudbury in the spring of 2014.

Mary Pratt’s show is organized thematically, with display areas labelled “Place,” “Everyday Rituals,” “Realism,” “Process” and “The Feminine,” the last featuring her famous studies of her husband’s half-undressed young models.

Among her earliest works in the show is a painting of the elegant house in Fredericton where she was born and spent her privileged childhood as the elder daughter of the attorney general of New Brunswick. From the age of eight, all she wanted to do was paint and draw.

At Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, she met Christopher Pratt, then a pre-med student from Newfoundland more interested in art making than medicine, and the two married in 1957. The fine art department at Mount Allison was then a place of ferment, run by inspired and demanding teachers including Alex Colville and Lawren P. Harris (son of the leading light of the Group of Seven).

After their wedding, the couple spent two years in Scotland while Christopher studied drawing and design at the Glasgow School of Art, and Mary gave birth to and tended the first of their four children. They completed their BFA degrees in 1961 after returning to Mount Allison, then moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Two years later, Christopher’s father offered them an old cottage he bought on the Salmonier River about a kilometre or two inland from St. Mary’s Bay. This house, which they improved and modernized, was to prove the ideal living and working place, allowing them to concentrate on art making in their separate studios without taking other jobs. Its windows with their venetian blinds, its kitchen, screened porch, vintage bathroom and wall-papered bedroom make frequent appearances in their paintings.

Mary Pratt, spending her youthful energies on homemaking and childrearing, took longer than her husband to find her subject matter as an artist. What she considers her first professional painting, Supper Table (1969), included in the current show, depicts the tumult of family life as reflected in a table after the meal: half-drunk glasses of milk, an unwanted hot dog, orange peel, dirty dishes, a ketchup bottle, mustard. When she was sketching this messy still life and complaining of losing the light, her husband left the room, came back with his camera, and took a photograph of the table that changed everything.

The photograph enabled her to capture the moment and picked up details the eye tends to miss. From then on, she used slides for reference and invented a distinctive contemporary style, while executing her paintings in oils the traditional way, using small sable brushes. Pratt wrote that Supper Table marked “the acceptance of the world that is available to me.” Her own parents considered painting from photographs to be cheating, but she knew she was on the right path when Supper Table was purchased by her father-in-law.

At the centre of the touring exhibition are the images for which she is justly celebrated: salmon on Saran wrap, Jell-O sparkling on a silver platter, bananas in a crystal bowl, turkey being basted, jars of jelly that seem to have an inner fire, a perfect roast of beef tied with string. (She never seems to burn or spill anything.) The mystery is how she imbues the commonplace products of the kitchen with so much presence and, at the same time, with a disturbing quality.

In the video accompanying the exhibition, she remarks that life is a very violent affair. The kitchen is where this violence plays out. Eviscerated raw chickens, headless fish on foil, trout in a frying pan. The dead pheasant hanging by its feet. A split carcass of a moose on the back of a truck. There is nothing sugary in this work.

Mary Pratt is nearing 80 now and a video in the exhibition shows her using a walker in her St. John’s studio where she spends her days. She says her spine is twisted from the effort of work over the years, that sometimes she painted from 9 a.m. to 6 a.m the next day. She says she has sacrificed her social life and has no network of friends. “My life is what I paint—the things that come into my hands.” She is a grandmother eleven times over and has found a new partner in the artist James Rosen (they married in 2006), with whom she toured the great art museums of Italy and Spain for the first time.

A clutch of uneven essays fill the show’s catalogue. The best of them is Sarah Fillmore’s commentary on the history of still life painting—long a reviled genre in Canada—and Pratt’s place in it. Catharine Mastin’s essay is a jargon-laden feminist reading of Pratt’s work (“When she painted the table she exposed … the gendering of rooms in Euro-Canadian households”) in which the artist is presented as a victim of her times, that benighted era before birth control. Ray Cronin defends Pratt’s realism as a legitimate modern form, a defence that is entirely unnecessary. No one thought to defend Lucian Freud because he drew and painted from life.

Christopher Pratt: Six Decades is a handsome book with 140 colour illustrations bringing the reader up to date on paintings by the other Pratt. There have been previous books on Pratt but they are out of print, which makes this one welcome.

Tom Smart, a former director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, traces the development of Christopher Pratt decade by decade as he refines his paintings of Newfoundland, its bleached clapboard houses, salt sheds, empty highways, ocean vistas, sleek boats, lighthouses, snowstorms and sunsets. The artist seems to be reaching throughout his career for order, discipline, simplification, pushed nearly to the point of Mondrian-like abstraction.

Pratt has said: “Painters, for the most part, do not style themselves as intellectuals; what we do is see. Our eyes are connected to our hands as much through our guts as through our brains.” He sees Newfoundland as no one else has.

This reader wishes Tom Smart’s text was less dry and academic. He concentrates almost entirely on the formal qualities of the paintings, and thereby leaves many questions unanswered. He tells us that Pratt had to give up silk screening in 1997 “for health reasons,” which leaves the reader puzzled: what is so unhealthy about silk screening? And what was wrong with his health? We do not know. He writes, too, that Pratt stopped painting nudes in the 1980s. Why? Smart offers only this: “Pratt’s figures in the mid-80s … were complex dances with a powerful intimidating anima that he found so difficult that he abandoned figuration for landscapes and interiors.” What this means is anybody’s guess.

But the pictures are a revelation. I found most exciting the series about the remains of the U.S. naval base at Argentia, where Pratt had a summer job as a surveyor in the 1950s. The last of these haunting, monumental pictures, Argentia—The Ruins of Fort McAndrew: After the Cold War, was painted in 2013 and shows the artist at the height of his powers. The naval base was built during World War Two and Churchill once met Roosevelt there. It was closed down in 1994, but glows resplendent and white in Pratt’s picture, frozen in time. Fort McAndrew, like the off-base officers’ housing and the military bunkers along the beach, which Pratt painted in the late 1990s, brings together the history of Newfoundland with the large currents of 20th-century world history.

Pratt’s work is not documentary in nature, as Smart points out. While the buildings in the Argentia series look recognizably like the ones on the former naval base, most of Pratt’s work comes from his imagination. Take the painting titled A Room at St. Vincent’s, which is imaginary twice over. It is a sad, somber picture in greys and blues of a small cheerless room with a hard metal bed covered with a scratchy blanket. The closed window, with what could be a bar across it, suggests there is no escape. Pratt painted A Room at St. Vincent’s in 1992, a year after CBC aired the film The Boys of St. Vincent’s, which was a fictionalized story of the sexual abuse of boys by the Christian Brothers at the Mount Cashel orphanage (called St. Vincent’s in the film) from the 1950s to the 1970s.

There is no evidence that Pratt ever saw a room inside the benighted orphanage (now bulldozed and replaced by a shopping centre in St. John’s).

Christopher Pratt and Mary Pratt have changed the way we see. Both found gold in the -commonplace.