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Moving Through Darkness Into The Clearing Exhibition

Moving Through Darkness Into The Clearing Exhibition

January 19 – April 7, 2019

Location: Varley Art Gallery
216 Main Street Unionville  map

Curated by Anik Glaude

In F. H. Varley’s Gothic Arches at Doon, c.1948-49, slender tree trunks form a fence-like barrier between the brown earth of the forest floor and the blue of the sky beyond. The light piercing through the tightly wound branches is diffused, creating an effect not unlike that of a stained glass window. A figure, its form delineated only by a few soft pencil lines, appears to stand before us within this forested landscape. The figure’s identity, and the reason why the artist has left it unfinished, are unknown. Yet, its presence – no matter how ghostly – remains the only vestige of its movement across the land. This new acquisition is the inspiration behind Moving through darkness into the clearing, an exhibition exploring the ways in which artists return to the land in search of subject matter and how these repetitive actions are informed by their understanding of place and identity.

Trees are a common subject and motif in works by the Group of Seven. While individual species are often indistinguishable, many deciduous and coniferous varieties populate the temperate and boreal forests the Group painted. Landscape paintings by A. J. Casson, F. H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Franklin Carmichael and F. H. Varley are united here to consider the different ways in which trees are depicted in painted form; from thickets, groves, and copses to representations of solitary trees, handled at times more like portraits than landscapes.

The Group of Seven’s quest to create a decidedly Canadian genre of landscape painting in the early twentieth century is well established within the art historical canon of this country. Equally recognized are contemporary dialogues surrounding what and whom their endeavour obscured or left out completely. This ongoing and necessary debate does not negate the enduring association of the Group of Seven with the depiction of the Canadian landscape, or the Group’s place within the public’s imagination of the landscape genre. Instead, it provides the opportunity to explore contemporary concerns and propose different entry points into the worlds on view.

Trees remain an important part of the land on which we live today. F. H. Varley’s watercolour was most likely executed in Cressman Woods, now part of Homer Watson Park in Kitchener, Ontario. It is a good example of an old growth forest; the trees here are protected and thus permitted to thrive. In Canada, most forest trees live at least 100 years, while many of them, such as the White Oak, can last over 300 years, and the Eastern Hemlock, which is found in Cressman Wood, has a lifespan of up to 800 years. Many of the trees alive today have stood for centuries, witnessing everything from grand historic episodes and dramatic climatic conditions to intimate and personal moments. They absorb and react to their environment, becoming physical records of the land upon which they grow and the events they have experienced.

Moving from the darkness of the forest
into the clearing where the light illuminates breath
and one’s footing becomes clearer.
—Greg Staats, 2018

The inclusion of photographic works by Greg Staats, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), both complements and challenges the Group of Seven’s work on display. Staats’s works combine language, mnemonics and references to the natural world as an ongoing process of conceptualizing a Haudenosaunee restorative aesthetic that defines the multiplicity of relationships with trauma and renewal. As Richard W. Hill Sr. explains, “The tree is our [Haudenosaunee] symbol of hope. Trees capture the memory of the land and help define the cultural landscape.”1 The significance of the various natural landscapes found within Staats’s work is complex. As Hill points out, in some of Staat’s works, “[t]rees serve[ ] as both sentinels and places of safety.”2 In others, they are symbolic of the sense of uprootedness the artist experiences in his current urban context.

Richard W. Hill, Sr., “The Restorative Aesthetic of Greg Staats,” Greg Staats Liminal Disturbance (Hamilton: McMaster University Museum of Art, 2011), p. 14;
Ibid p. 10

About the Artist

Born in Ohsweken, Ontario and now living in Toronto, Greg Staats is Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. Staats has received the Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography and
his work has been exhibited throughout North America. He has also served as a faculty member for two Aboriginal visual arts Thematic Residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts. The Artist wishes to acknowledge the generous financial support of The Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario and the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.

Gothic Arches at Doon

F.H. Varley, Gothic Arches at Doon, c.1948-49, watercolour and charcoal on paper, 22.5 x 27.4 cm. Collection of the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, Gift of Heather McCallum. 2018.01

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