TERRY FENTON: DRIVE-BY PAINTINGS

 

HELEN MARZOLF

 

NAVIGATING THE SECONDARY HIGHWAYS and grids on tips and instinct, Terry Fenton toured and detoured around southwestern Saskatchewan last summer. He meandered south of Moose Jaw, over west past Old Wives Lake, through Gravelbourg, Lafleche, Cadillac, and Ponteix, dipping south again to Eastend and the Grasslands National Park, skirting the Cypress Hills, then up to Swift Current, and north, back to Saskatoon. Fenton was interested in this area, he says, because it has been overlooked by artists, except for Illingworth Kerr's travels there in the 1930s, exemplified by the well-known Ravenscrag, Ross's Ranch. Stare into Fenton's paintings of this tiny-featured land for a few minutes, and slowly, disconcertingly, an infinity forms in the spaces separating you, the painting, and the absent-minded landscape.

Fenton triple glazes--no, triple frames--painting's persistent Renaissance window. The first frame is outlined by the dimensions of his paintings. There is Fibonacci tinkering here: he lays out most of his pictures within a golden section. The second frame has to be the car window, and the third is the camera. Starting with digital photographs--Fenton's pragmatic plein air sketches--these paintings record fugitive insights rather than lushly described topography. The strong horizontal format suggests a transitory moment, reminding us that the predominant view of contemporary landscape is from the window of a moving vehicle.


Heart of Mine

The lens of the camera compresses landscape, a distortion Fenton puts to good use. Look at New Day (Morning, east of Swift Current, SK) or Heart of Mine (Sundown near Gravelbourg, SK or Uplook (Farm south of Moose Jaw, SK). In each of these, the anecdotal horizon of barns, defunct fences, machine sheds and sixties bungalows, is reduced to a graphic frieze that, in turn, animates the tectonics of sky and land. Anticipation (Sundown, west of Gravelbourg, SK on hwy 610) is a face-off between a foreground of chem-fallow earth pigments against dusky pastels, separated by a slender horizon line with a shorthand dot of a grain bin, maybe. There's a minimal beauty to the radically depopulated, rural landscape, sparsely marked by the gleaming steel bins and sheds of board room / coffee row landlords. Fenton reduces the architectural evidence of settlement history to a provisional, distant frieze, leaving it enigmatic and open-ended. For a while I have been puzzled by the persistence of a pastoral landscape tradition that ignores, perhaps deliberately, a georgic plain of intense and ahistorical industrialization. Fenton's approach is disarmingly accurate.


Intermission

On the other hand, Fenton's palette picks up nuances of hue: silver-green sage, mauve fallow, white clay, ochre-infused grass and packed gravel. Gazing into Intermission (Chaplin Lake, SK) the alkali slough smell revisits my sinuses, elicited by the milky green picture redolent of the evaporative haze of heat and sodium sulphate. In other pictures, the dizzying blues of sky, distance, shadow, and miniscule flora are unflinchingly accurate. Colour--playing off the graphic frieze--builds big space in Fenton's small pictures. Ravenscrag or Prospect are expansive moments. Sometimes Fenton takes in the eccentric detail of landscape, such as the erratic railroad cut through a rise in Shaunavon (Looking south from Shaunavon, SK), or he reinterprets the surveyors' geometry that defines Day 1-So Green or Wayside. The wobbling river in Ravenscrag(2) must be a homage to Illingworth Kerr.

Though Fenton's relationship to scenery is detached, his paintings are intimate, each site is recognizable, its sheer ordinariness rethought into a mesmerizing study of light, colour and clear-eyed seeing. Each of Fenton's pictures vacillates between painting qua painting and fidelity to a lived psycho-geography. In his precise visual notations of arid fallow, mirage-making sloughs, and infinite taxonomies of cloud getting full due over compacted till, the simple present fact of paint on paper tells of a quiet place left for crows, larks, coyotes and prevailing winds.