Half Empty, Since 1998

A lucid and illuminating look at the wonderful world of Canadian landscape painting, From Monica Tap at Wynick/Tuck Gallery to the Bob Ross influence on popular aesthetics.

Landscapes: Monica Tap at Wynick/Tuck Gallery

Dagmar Alexander. November 15th, 1998

“Landscapes?”[!] it seems to me that landscapes are at the bottom of the rung. There are some nice ones; VanGogh’s are good and fervent, Cezane really seems to be thinking about things. Every time I think about landscape though, I can’t help thinking of Bob Ross, which just ruins everything. Happy clouds, sparkling ponds and a friendly little tree at the front left of every composition [this creates foreground!] just don’t cut the mustard next to greats like Davides’ Coronation of Napoleon. People! Serious historical transpirations! These are the things that make up an important painting. The Dutch seemed to really like landscapes, but the Dutch were a quiet, happy people. In The Third Man Orson Wells, as Harry Lime says:

In Italy for thirty years under the Borges, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed; but they produced Michealangelo, Leonardo di Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The coo-coo-clock.

The Dutch are like the Swiss, and their landscapes are nice. Canadians are also like the Swiss, and we like our landscapes too; we love our Group of Seven. I like the people in big historical paintings of the past, but I also like the thingness of abstraction, and I like Monica Tap. I like her because her landscapes aren’t.

Born in Edmonton in 1962, the 36 year old Tap calls herself “a painter of historical landscapes.” As such she is quite well received in Canada and has received many marks of distinction. What I like about her stuff though, is that way it jumps around with lots of colours and calligraphic brush strokes to look at. I could see maybe a tree or some grassy bits here and there in the paintings, but I swear I saw a skeleton in one so who knows? What counts with her stuff is the way the colours and markings layer. Apparently, these layers are made up of copied seventeenth century landscape drawings “gotten all wrong” laid over top of each other like a multi colour silk-screen mis-registered. These paintings are about landscape yes, but it is more a landscape of picture plane than out doors.

There is depth though! Monica Tap’s paintings can be like following “zippy the scanning electron” [I’m not making this up- a real unified theory for the universe] around a canvass, or it can be like looking through a series of curtains, as one colour recedes or rises from the next. Greenburg says that non-objective painting, being about the painting itself and therefor the picture plane, should be flat because depth isn’t a quality of the canvass and is a big lie. He was talking about Abstract Expressionism though and that was a while ago now. So Monica Tap can have her depth and be non objective too. Considering that there is a supposed landscape or two behind every one of her paintings this depth makes even more sense- one of landscapes goals is to convey near and far [remember Bob Ross’ friendly little tree front and left.] The interesting thing though is that the depth in her paintings isn’t within the individual layers of landscape drawing, these are flat. Her depth is created by the layering of drawings. So it’s the abstraction that creates the depth, not the figurative. Hmmm.

What else? The colour. Landscapes are usually some combination of blue, green and brown. Monica Tap uses these colours- sometimes all in the same painting! But her colour is often completely self-imposed. She uses cross and split complimentary like an interior decorator. The colours give her paintings an overall sense of vibrance and unity, but she does not stick to earth tones. In some of the paintings the colours coalesce and agree to form a clam sedentation, while in others she creates an embroilment of contrast that draws your eye around the format and makes you want to be somewhere else. Or it seemed my girlfriend did [she met me at the gallery and wanted to leave the moment she got there. When I finally buckled, we spent an hour trying on different gray dresses.] While these colours are not necessarily the colours of landscape, Tap is drawing, not from landscape paintings, but from landscape drawings. A drawing can be in what ever colour one wishes- so long as it is linear. So Monica can similarly use any colour that suits the work and remain true to her mission.

I like the way the show was presented- all square formats and those sexy gray frames. The square is the tool of modernity- the grid we see in Jennifer Bartlett’s work for example, or row houses. And gray, well gray is the chique high fashion colour of the season. [I should know, I spent an hour trying to decide which gray I liked best in a skirt.] These elements gave the show a distinctly modern look, further separating Tap’s paintings from those of her seventeenth century teachers.

I really liked these paintings as paintings; I liked the colours [the red and green and yellow one and the green and brown and beige one in particular.] I liked the loose and effortless feel to the compositions, and the sense of light to it all. I’m not sure whether or not I liked the spot the horticulture game I constantly found my self playing, but I guess that’s my point- good paintings, despite the Canadian conceit to landscape.