The Garden Ceremony

The Garden Ceremony

“The Garden Ceremony is a state of mind.” – David More

The Garden Ceremony is also a body of work. A very substantial body of work by David More which at this point, thirty-five years later, contains over 200 images in acrylic painting, drawing, mixed media on paper and watercolour. Nearly two dozen of these works have been selected for this exhibition which, akin to a garden pathway, brings us to certain key points in the artist’s journey.

Along the way, we are engaged − as any garden visitor is − by the fruits of past efforts and by more recent and bolder acts of creation. In the case of The Garden Ceremony these earlier efforts are represented by seven works created between to 1977 to 1987. The more recent, bolder acts come with The Garden Ceremony with India Forms (1994 – 1995) and its latest enactment, War’s Garden series (2006 to 2009). In both instances, more unfamiliar ground was staked-out both conceptually and compositionally. There are the T-shaped canvases of India Forms and the even larger steps taken in the realization of War’s Garden. Fusing childhood recollections of Second World War fighter aircraft with gardens from his past, the wings of these planes became both symbol and surface upon which to paint. Thus, The Garden Ceremony is testament to a theme that, over time, has continued to inspire and move the artist in directions never contemplated.

So what is The Garden Ceremony all about? From where does it come and how does it relate to More’s other landscape-based work which has also defined his artistic practice? And how is it, within a Canadian context and in a country devoted to the rituals of gardening so few works of art about this subject have been recognized as part of its artistic legacy? What then does The Garden Ceremony offer to this discourse?

Connected to this oeuvre’s inception is the popular notion of the garden being a place of refuge: a quiet haven with the power to, as the Victorians wrote about them,” to focus the mind…”Partly inspired by a trip to Brazil with More’s first wife, Gail Hall, research and drawing on The Garden Ceremony began in 1975 and was enhanced in 1977 with visits to the grand formal gardens of England and France. During that latter year with the impact of a disintegrating marriage, More writes about taking “solace” in his art: “in my imaginary gardens…[which] allowed me to return to moments and places remembered and hoped for and [now] lamented.” In all, eleven ink and wash and conté drawings of a very large scale (121 x 242 cm) were rendered in the unhappy winter of 1977. Deeply autobiographical and never publically exhibited, these semi-abstract expressionistic works were rolled-up and put aside for thirty years.

In this exhibition from this cache of mixed media drawings are Garden Ceremony with Brazilian Wall and Garden Ceremony with Snow Steps. Compositionally, they look as fresh as the year they were made due to the spontaneity and energy of More’s drawing. As imaginary works, they convey a dark and turbulent mood; subverting all expectations about gardens being, in general, idyllic and bucolic places. And while the artist’s life eventually “moved on” after the completion of these drawings, the garden theme continued to be a part of his practice for many years to come.

By then, More was already a graduate (1972) in painting from Calgary’s Alberta College of Art and was establishing himself as a landscape artist with a style influenced by colour-field* painting. But amongst this effort − including a 1979 lansdcape exhibition of his Crowsnest Pass Series – additional garden-related works appeared in the medium of acrylic painting as seen in Garden Ceremony with White Path (1978). With its lyrical wing or v-shaped treed garden at the centre of the composition, this large-scale painting left a deep impression on More. Compositionally, it would later resonate in the development of the aforementioned, War’s Garden of 2006-2009.

*An American and Canadian movement in painting from the mid-1950s to late 1960s that succeeded Abstract Expressionism. Rejecting illusions of depth and gestural brushwork, colour-field painters applied colour in smooth swaths that often span the entire canvas. Canadian examples include Jack Bush and William Perehudoff.

In a 1982 Calgary Herald review of More’s first exhibition of The Garden Ceremony work, critic Nancy Tousley described how the artist combined “image making with the strategies of colour-field painting.” Observing that “ his abstracted images of gardens, never literal nor naturalistic in description, are built up in thin layers of saturated staining and calligraphic brush drawing that often deposits thick tracks of pigment on the surface in a kind of low relief.” She also observed how the artist strove not to make his acrylics “pretty.” Instead, as More explained, his gardens at that point were places where “there’s something dead or menacing underneath. “

Consisting of ten large paintings including the Garden Ceremony with Border (1981), Garden Ceremony with Autumn Screen (1981) and the aforementioned Garden Ceremony with White Path, many of the works in the 1982 exhibition presented More’s audience with unusual viewpoints into his garden-like landscapes. In the Border work, a colour-field of darkness obscures what can only be clearly seen up the painting’s upper-left hand corner. A similar screen-like device is also present in Autumn Screen but this time with the rapturous colours of Fall drawing the viewer’s eye into the picture. In contrast, in White Path, the perspective is from above as if the viewer was airborne; looking down onto a landscape of plowed ground and the green shelter of a treed garden. In mood and depiction, all suggest that something more can be found behind what is seen on the painting’s surface.

In all three works, the acrylics are often handled like watercolour and are applied in a more gestural manner than the flat, unbroken surfaces favoured by the colour-field school. As a young artist during the 1970s when this approach to abstract painting was still a strong (but fading) current in Canadian art, More insisted on a more pluralistic approach including not just abstraction but representational elements, patterning, calligraphic drawing and mark making as well as content (i.e., subject matter) that went beyond the formal concerns of painting. Indeed, he was witness to − as many art school trained artists were at the time – an enormous shift in the visual arts of the Western world from modernism to post-modernism. No longer so preoccupied with the modernist prescription of art for art’s sake, a more variegated tapestry of contemporary art was in play that encompassed among, many things, a return to representation in painting.

Notably as the 1980s progressed, More’s art whether related or not to The Garden Ceremony series, became more representational with recognizable features more prominent than passages of abstraction. By the time of his fourth exhibition of new Garden Ceremony work in 1988, critic Nancy Tousley was writing about the presence of such recognizable objects as “garden stairs and walks, ornamental architecture and chairs, flowers beds, clipped hedges and reflecting ponds.” Nonetheless, she emphasized that “the garden [remains] for More a personal landscape”. Actually more symbolic than representations of actual sites, “[they] are reflections of states of mind.” Included in this 1988 showcase were Embankment with Arbutus (1986) and Frost Embankment with Arbutus (1987).

Besides generating four exhibitions around the imaginary garden theme in the 1980s, one of the works from this period − a mixed media on mat board* – was curated into the seminal Spaces & Places: Eight Decades of Landscape Painting in Alberta. A national travelling exhibition organized from the collection the Alberta Art Foundation**, curator Jetske Ironside, writes how the “garden becomes a metaphor for the human condition” in a More work of art. In addition, other kinds of work emerged from the prolific artist: book illustrations for the satirical writer, Eric Nicol (1978, 1980, 1982, 1986) ; outdoor mural commissions (Chemainus, BC; Bashaw, AB and Welland, ON) and landscapes inspired by time spent on Vancouver Island, in the familiar terrain of Central Alberta and journeys with his new partner, Yvette Brideau to her home in New Brunswick.

New Brunswick, in particular, proved to be especially important to the artist’s practice. Moved by the acid-rain destruction of forests and lakes in the province, More generated Forest: Fade to Silent.

Comprised of thirty-six oil paintings, the 1990 exhibition*** toured across Canada for two years including to the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery. Inspired partly by the wilderness subject matter and stylistic approach of the Group of Seven, this powerful series played-off the Group’s legacy but with “intense colour clashes, sickly hues and brooding shadows”. It was landscape the seven original members would not have recognized. As an environmentally themed body of work, the initiative taken by More had few precedents at the time in Canadian art.

*Garden Ceremony with Poet #2 (1985)

** The collection of AAF was later absorbed into the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

*** The exhibition was organized by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Banff.

Also, from this period, more painting and works on paper about the garden theme evolved including canvases of substantial size titled India Forms. Inspired by a three-week journey to southern India in 1992, visits to the Mughal gardens introduced the artist to the remarkable achievements of Islamic architecture. Designed to conjure up visions of paradise, with its preference for decorative geometric patterns and water features within a walled enclosure, the artist wrote about the impact of these sublime places. “Perhaps it was the state on mind with which I experienced India, but there was spirituality and a sense of balance to everything…In the grandness of the palaces and their gardens and the monuments such as the Taj Mahal, symmetry stabilized everything and provided a meditative refuge from the chaos beyond the garden walls.”

In response, More moved beyond the rectangular format of his previous work to include paintings whose T-shaped form suggested a pair of outstretched arms in a robe. As for their imagery, presented were scenes that blended both imagined and actual sites with an emphasis on the architecture. Featuring columned structures, staircases, terraces and palace walls, key to these pictures was their elegant symmetry and balance. A palette of rich greens, turmeric-fused oranges and rose-coloured tones also enriched their presence. Striking too is the realism of India Forms whose titles make reference to cities visited like Gadag and Cochin (Kochi) as well as the decorative folk art practice of Rangoli. At the bottom of each T-shaped painting (Rangoli #I, Rangoli #II), More has created a circular lace-like design in white evoking this tradition of peace and welcome.

Displayed in 1995 in Calgary, this homage to garden creation within an Indo-Persian context marked the last public exhibition of The Garden Ceremony for many years. After India Forms, new ideas were underway but the results now titled War’s Garden materialized much later.

This was because as a series, it was More’s most complex offering to date. Consisting of four monumental paintings on wood (320 cm x 335 cm) − each requiring a year to build and paint − their genesis resided in the aforementioned Garden Ceremony with White Path (1978) and in the four working drawings executed after the completion of India Forms. These included from 1996, Wing Variation with Steps and Wing Variation with Steps #II and from 1997, Scale Option #II and Maquette for Spitfire Steps.

War’s Garden became a reality only when plywood wing shapes were enlisted to serve as the surface upon which to render some of his most lyrical and nostalgic gardens. In each work, the make of the plane determined the shape of the wing.

“Spitfire Steps emerged from my mother’s stories as a young WAAF in the Royal Air Force, Night Corsair grew from a story told by a New Zealand navy pilot, Lancaster Moon formed from the memories of an English flight engineer, and Marigold and Harvards stems from my childhood days living near a training base [in the Red Deer area].”

Spitfire Steps (2006) and Lancaster Moon (2009) are the richest in recognizable garden imagery while Marigolds and Harvards is more abstract. The artist moved to Red Deer in 1949 from Scotland as a toddler and while the war was now over, reminders of it existed throughout his youth. For instance, an air force training school in nearby Penhold still operated with bright yellow Harvards seen daily overhead.

Five wing shapes were fabricated and then overlapped each other for Marigolds and Harvards. This arrangement created an arch-like structure where in the lower-left, steps were painted leading into a small area of lawn. For the artist, this space with its profusion of yellows, golds, greens and oranges alluded to “a child’s space, naïve and safe.” The step motif was recurrent in War’s Garden; always leading to a quiet haven. Only in the 2007 work, Night Garden, Corsair – Descending Over Water was the step motif absent.

Executed as a field of deep blues and blacks and painted on a gull wing shape distinctive to the Corsair, this work is perhaps the most metaphorical of War’s Garden. It is also the only painting made to be displayed on a wall unlike the three other works which were constructed to stand on the floor. This was done to create the illusion of a deep night-time sky high above a darkened garden pond. These waters, though, could just as easily be of a more dangerous kind over which these combat planes flew.

Conceptually and formally, then, War’s Garden, is a multi-layered installation of painting and three-dimensional form of considerable depth and meaning. It brings together the polar opposites of peace as represented by the garden imagery and destruction as implied by the wing-shaped painting, itself. In this sense, the garden theme is catapulted beyond its traditional associations with paradise, pleasure and the natural world. In the oeuvre that David More has created over the last thirty-five years, the garden has been a place of refuge during a time of personal crisis, a place of discovery due to travel and a place where the memories of childhood mingle with the larger historic canvas of World War II.

The Garden Ceremony also represents a body of work where substantial development and growth has contributed to his practice as a painter. It’s an unusual subject by which to accomplish this because overall, in the canon of Canadian art, the garden is only a minor subject with few recognized examples. In this category, standing practically alone is The Tangled Garden, painted in 1916 by J.E.H. MacDonald. An oil on beaverboard, this painting of a late-summer garden at MacDonald’s home in Thornhill, Ontario was hated by the critics of the day – “like a hugh tomato salad” commented one. Nonetheless, it’s post-impressionistic style and intense colours was admired by others like Lawren Harris who, along with MacDonald participated four years later in the first display of what was then titled: Paintings by the Group of 7.

As a source of inspiration, David More also has had a garden to draw upon which, as it happens, is located right outside of his studio door. Tended by Yvette, this large plot of fruit trees, flowers and vegetables has played its own role in the later works by enabling him to paint en plein aire. In other words, he can work outdoors on small oils which, in turn, have enriched the visual vocabulary present in the larger works. Having this resource of colour and greenery has, according to the artist, freed him up to, as he observes, “investigate other avenues relative to [The Garden Ceremony] theme, in particular the fusion of memories (mine and others) and places of reflection.”

For thirty-five years then, The Garden Ceremony as “personal landscape” but also as a subject with wider aesthetic currency and meaning has made David More’s contribution to Canadian contemporary art a unique one.

Mary-Beth Laviolette, May 2012.

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