“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Why I Paint Trees
In 1984 my partner and I planted 7000 trees on 20 acres we owned in Grey County, Ontario. As a result I began to see trees as an artistic subject that I could really embrace. Helping these trees to grow and protecting them from vermin in their first few years allowed me to connect in a visceral way with environmental issues as well as ideas of shelter and nurturing.
Being so involved with trees also changed the way I looked at them. They are excitingly sculptural in their huge variety of shapes, forms and textures. It is not possible to see them as static, rather they respond to both the long term climatic forces and the immediate influences of weather. Trees move in the wind, make sounds, have smells, are smooth or rough; and they can show us how they are experiencing conditions of drought, cold, heat and threats. In many ways trees can express a wide range of human-like concerns and states of being.
Gradually my landscape paintings, which were fairly abstract in the past, shifted emphasis - with tree forms coming to dominate the central theme of most works. Today I continue to explore and refine my painterly methods used to express what I sense about foliage, branches and trunks surrounded by airy spaces.
It is clear that trees have an almost infinite variety of types. I travel fairly often to other regions and spend time looking at trees and shrubs in widely ranging conditions, from deserts to rainy forests. They are all interesting; my visual passion.
While staying in Taos NM at a house surrounded by sage brush I heard coyotes one night outside my window. The next day I decided to try and experience the sage brush from their height. Getting down on all fours I moved through the sage which changed into a forest from that vantage point. It was a valuable insight; change your perspective to learn new things.
Robert marchessault 2013
As a student at Concordia University, Robert Marchessault ignored suggestions from his professors to follow his peers in painting abstraction, instead opting to learn—and contribute to—the "language" of landscape. This explicit disregard for the conventions of the contemporary would be what solidified for Marchessault not only an impressive and prolific 40 year long painting career, but a firm and respected place in the Canadian contemporary art community. For many, Marchessault's paintings recall the pastoral scenes of the landscape genre, and evoke the technical skill of canonized artists like Baroque painter Claude Lorrain and English Romantic John Constable. But what separates Marchessault from this art historical tradition is his deep exploration of the tree and its landscape as archetype rather than as assertions of territory or purely idealized, Romantic space. Indeed, observable over Marchessault's long career is a general turning upwards from land to sky, a re-orientation of perspective to include—and even privilege—empty space.
It is precisely this love for space that for Marchessault becomes a vessel for meditative thought. The artist defends himself against any suggestion that painting trees repetitively signals "a dull, uninventive mind," citing the work of Giorgio Morandi and others "who could find in a simple set of objects all that they needed to sustain them in their work." This tireless exploration of a single subject paradoxically reveals Marchessault's versatility; the tree—stripped of its literal associations and inscribed with its complex symbolic history—becomes a "vehicle" for interpretation, and a space for personal, political, environmental, and imaginative projects. This creative attitude underpins what is perhaps the most striking and poetic aspect of Marchessault's work: the trees we see are imagined, hybrid species, painted from the artist's memory, their surroundings equally constructed in to create each dreamlike composition. Characteristic of his technique to date, Marchessault begins his process by applying layers of paint to a wood panel, only to strategically wipe it off with rags to create and build up texture. Recently, the artist has been experimenting with the smoothness of spray paint and the almost surreal, almost-abstract effects of bright, flat blue skies. His tree figures begin as swift, gestural lines of paint, with branches and foliage growing out of this initial abstraction as organically as nature itself, what Marchessault describes as "the way energy flows up and through a tree." Together, these explorations lend a distinct, contemporary freshness to Marchessault's recent work, and demonstrate the artist's willingness to investigate the limits of his subject matter while maintaining what he describes as the ability of the tree to evoke "universal yet intensely personal" responses in the viewer.
In all their simplicity, Marchessault's paintings inspire complex levels of awareness, both mental and spatial. Ambient Trees is an exhibition of works that fuse representation and imagination to encourage abstract, 'ambient' thinking, to consider the essential relationships between a thing and its space, life and environment, time and geography, mind and body.
Erin Saunders 2015 (Exhibition Catalog, Ambient Trees, 2015, Bau-Xi Galleries, Toronto)
Aragon, 2015, 60'x48", oil
Robert Marchessault and the Landscape
I first saw Bob’s art at the Gadatsy Gallery in Toronto in the early 1980’s. He was exhibiting works in pencil and watercolor on paper dealing with the landscape. The pieces were small and delicate, somewhat abstracted, yet captivating. Each work provided a small window into a particular universe. At one level they were highly accessible depictions of countryside yet they were also places into which the viewer could insert himself or herself and roam. His use of the land, its contours, horizons, skies, trees, rocks and water provided points of entry, inviting exploration, experience and reaction to that particular scene as well as the art of painting itself.
Somewhat later, I had the opportunity to visit Bob’s studio, then a tiny cramped space, and see his work in oil on canvas and on wood panel. The scale was large and the style was bold and exuberant and again, the work brought the viewer in – to feel and relate. His paintings delivered. His image of a particular scene: looking down from a vantage point in Halliburton, looking out through a window, seeing a sand dune, walking in an apple orchard, engaged rather than presented the viewer with an illustration of a vista. As Jed Perl of the New Republic (June 25, 2008) points out, “A painting or a sculpture, whether abstract or representational, must always be a place – a unique locale, a little universe. The particularity of the place draws us in…. we linger, we explore….”
The landscape always evokes feelings, not only about the scene that we take in, but also about our relatedness to the earth, the world and parts of ourselves. We experience a sense of our being in the particular world of the painting, looking about, sensing, relating. Sunlight streaming onto golden fields, heavy clouds in the sky darkening the earth, a river meandering away from us into the distance evokes thoughts, expectations and memories. We explore the parts of the painting and we meet parts of ourselves. Bob’s paintings invite our visit and reward us with the experience of the world he presents. As R. Kitaj, in the Diasporist Manifestos observes, “Paintings sit there, looking out at the world, which remains separate. I’m for an art into which the painter imports things from the world that he cares about – imports them into the alternate world that is the work of art.”
Dr. Jack Brandes
By Janet Nicol
When Robert Marchessault and his partner moved from Toronto to a farm in the countryside in the 1990s, his long-held passion for trees found new direction. This exhibition shows 15 of his new oil paintings on wooden panels, all ethereal renderings of those trees. “These are not photograph-based,” Marchessault emphasizes. “I use memory as a filtering agent. I train myself to look hard at the trees and at what impresses me. Time goes by and I begin to paint the tree from what I can remember. Memory plays a big role but I am not slavish about memory. I study ways the tree lives and grows, how it branches, moves through space in foliage and form. Then I begin big gestural paintings, and memory informs what emerges.” Marchessault’s love of trees was partly inspired by an Ontario government no-cost tree-planting initiative. He and his partner planted 7,000 saplings on their farm in 1984. He now looks out on to 50-foot-high pines. “You take on a nurturing of the land,” Marchessault says of his private forest. “You’re introducing life and protecting it. This feeling of love drives a passion for art.” Marchessault has also become intrigued by representing water as a foil to trees. New paintings of tree-covered islands appeal to him because they seem ‘mysterious.’
Form and Feeling
Statement from the October 2014 Exhibition at Bau-Xi Galleries Vancouver
The title of this exhibition is borrowed from a book by Bertha Fanning Taylor, Form and Feeling in Painting published in 1959 by Pagent Press. The phrase “form and feeling” came to me as I was working on the largest canvas in my show, titled Varada (pg. 24). The words seemed to encapsulate what I have been trying to accomplish for a number of years.
I studied painting in Montreal under two main influences. John Fox and Gerald Roach (both deceased) taught at Concordia University and Dawson College respectively in the 1970s. After formal classes Fox was kind enough to invite me to his Old Montreal loft-studio where small groups of art students would pitch in to pay for a model who would sit for us. During the breaks we would look at his current paintings and those in progress. This was during his most abstract phase where colour and forms (shapes) delivered sensual visual experiences unlike anything I had seen to date. As well, John had a large collection of art history books and art magazines that he would pull out in order to show how his explorations were linked to a long tradition. I remember times when he would place a work in progress on the floor and ask me if a certain shape and line “felt” right. Understanding that I needed to “feel the forms” in order to respond to their emotional weight had a big impact on me.
When I knew Gerald Roach, he had moved away from abstraction and was exploring a kind of neo-classicism which borrowed techniques and imagery from the 16th to 19th centuries. As with Fox, I was able to learn outside of the college studios and spent time drawing and painting with him on trips in Quebec and to his studio in Nova Scotia. One of the key things I learned was how hard it is to paint “solid forms” that appeared to carry weight. He encouraged me to strive and find ways to feel the massiveness of objects and portray them. It took me over a year to achieve the basics of this skill. He hated the unwanted flattening effect produced by copying photos, exclaiming “how can you trust an image gained from just one eye in a sixtieth of a second!”
What Roach helped me to do was to look hard and feel the forms, the weight and mass. He taught me to trust my own eyes and to use drawing as a way to get that understanding down on paper. That was where the passion was.
I’m now older that both those artists were when I knew them. Yet the importance of what I learned seems to reveal itself more with each passing year. My art is about experience and my desire to share that with viewers. Emotions and sensual responses to what I see in trees, water, clouds and landscapes are best expressed with the power of forms.
Most viewers are not painters and probably do not care much about how a painter works. They encounter a piece long after it has been completed. The viewer’s understanding of its forms is immediate. In my work, the forms resemble trees. I like it when both the abstract qualities plus the meaning of the tree images combine to set off feelings unique to each viewer. In these times, with so much emphasis on eco-consciousness, there is no doubt that my subject connects with the importance of preserving and encouraging a world in balance. I subscribe to these actions and hope that my work supports them in some small way.