lessons that Pratt has given us: The sublime can be found in the overlooked AND the humble.
If I try to paint outdoors, I just sit there and cry. I can’t paint outdoors too much, but if I’m in the house, I’m safe. I’m safe in the house, and all of these crazy things that happen I don’t mind. I figure that it’s okay, because I’m surrounded by the comfort of my house, of my room or whatever, and it just happens.
– Mary Pratt
While strictly housebound, the smallest details of our lives make their way into the foreground.
For some, this looks like an unswept floor, things in need of mending, tedium or confinement; for others it may look like treasured possessions, an heirloom passed down through generations, or the way the sun hits a bowl of fruit at 10 am. Certainly, the current situation has lessened our ability to swing from one big stimulation to the next. Gone are the days of the flâneur, the person-about-town. We are being asked to redefine what a vibrant, robust life looks like and how best to cultivate joy in a fixed quantity of square feet. But in this, we are all creatives: we have been given a set of constraints and now must conjure something of merit out of our new circumstances.
As we look to find splendour in the indoors, it seems the perfect time to revel in the work of Mary Pratt, one of the foremost realist painters Canada has ever produced. While her subject matter rarely strays from that which could be classified as ordinary, her genius lies in reminding us that there is an abundance of beauty in the objects we presume to have seen countless times before.
Pratt is best known for her lush still lifes, rendered in a style that is wholly hers; bursting with vivacity and colour. A genre often dominated by the somber formality and pomp of the Dutch Golden Age, the textures of Pratt’s subjects seem to rush towards the viewer, demanding to be touched and savoured, smelled and tasted, if only within the realm of memory. Pratt’s work insists we remember that we have five senses and just how glorious they all are.
Perhaps this is the core of Pratt’s power: that ability to evoke both dynamism and sensuality, the large and the small. It is a rare balance struck – that ability to transform the personal into the monumental, the universal.
To stand before Pratt’s paintings is to be nearly overwhelmed by the grandeur of simple pleasures. Her subjects jostle for attention, her choice of perspective exciting and fresh. As a painter, she does not shy from any of the heavy lifting, choosing near-impossible backdrops and bold perspectives, selecting subjects like sieves, lace, crochet, glass, fish scales—subjects that would make even the most accomplished painter weep with frustration.
Much has been written about the artist’s history as a homemaker and mother, how she needed to snatch rare moments of time between these other tasks in order to pursue her artistic career. In viewing the work apart from the narrative, it seems impossible that even a single stroke was anything but measured and unhurried. There is nothing close to a forced line or a poorly laid out corner in Pratt’s work. Her work reads like the clearest of memories—more real than real, more felt than seen. The work appears effortless, and perhaps that is her greatest feat of all, for only when in the hands of a true master do we feel able to fully relax, to bask in pure pleasure.
These are some of the lessons that Pratt has given us: The sublime can be found in the overlooked, the humble. Being at home can lead to inspiration. Masterpieces can come from the dinner table. There will be sunshine and colour, and we can hold on to them in our own way. There will always be moments of beauty, if we are interested in looking. These concepts seem slippery and elusive at the end of a drab Canadian winter, especially one as fraught as this one. Pratt reminds us to take comfort in the familiar, in the domestic and well-known, in the way the light shines through glass and into your kitchen.
Over the years, Waddington’s has had the pleasure and the privilege of offering a selection of work by Mary Pratt, including Washed Plums, Fruit in the Dining Room Window, 1995, and Classic Still Live With Pheasants.
Fans of the artist will be excited to learn that a new book, “Mary Pratt: Life and Work,” written by Ray Cronin and published by Art Canada Institute, will be released on April 24, 2020.
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