¨Dream Realty, 18 x 46″, oil on canvas, 2014, courtesy of Mira Godard Gallery
Peter D. Harris b.1974
Peter D. Harris was born in London, Ontario in 1974, and currently lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. He completed a degree in Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo in 1997. In the years since he has exhibited his oil paintings in group and solo exhibitions in Canada and the United States. He has won several awards for his continuing series of urban inspired landscape paintings, including an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant and an Ontario Arts Council, Mid Career project grant. His work can be found in private collections in Canada, the United States and Europe.
My ongoing series of urban landscape paintings are informed by Canadian artists of the past, their explorations of the uninhabited northern wilderness, and how their depictions of this landscape helped to define a Canadian identity. The most iconic paintings of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries depicted a rugged and untamed version of Canada devoid of human development; almost a century later, these paintings still affect our collective understanding of a quintessential Canadian landscape. These historical paintings serve to document a specific place and time of a landscape, and over years have become a symbolic vision of Canada: a country defined by its natural beauty. These works still resonate strongly as an essential component of our shared Canadian identity and read as an honest interpretation of the country’s landscape. However, with over 80 percent of Canadians now living in cities, not only is the Canadian landscape changing, but our relationship to it is evolving as well. While our cities rapidly encroach on the landscapes from which our painters once drew inspiration, figuratively, we’ve never been more distant from that same wilderness.
My work uses the urban landscape in two ways to address this altered relationship with the landscape of our collective past. The first begins with a depiction of the contemporary urban landscape: the building facades and architecture, office parks, parking lots and streets. These paintings frame an urban landscape that exists as a daily reality for millions of people, and reflect that landscape back to the viewer as a worthwhile contender for the mantle of “Canadian Landscape”. In my work the essential Canadian landscape is not defined by nature, instead I focus on a built urban environment. The landscapes in this exhibition are depicted at night in order to dramatize and draw attention to themselves, to separate them from their daytime utilitarian purposes, and to focus on the aesthetic value of the urban landscape. By using strong lighting and a shallow depth of field, a stage-like effect allows the subjects to be separated from the dark background. My paintings highlight or obscure distinct areas of the environment in an attempt to simplify the scene to its essential elements and present my interpretation of the landscape to the viewer for consideration.
The second group of paintings in the exhibition question if our artistic representations of the landscape have kept pace with the urbanization of Canada over the last century. By inserting images of famous Canadian landscape paintings into an urban setting, my paintings show the viewer two contrasting depictions of Canada. I begin with a building facade of modern architecture, a commonplace element of the contemporary urban landscape. Inserted into the interior spaces of that building are re-creations of quintessential Canadian landscape paintings that embody all of the mythology, aspirations, and idealism of Canadian art of the past. The contrast between these historic paintings and the modern landscape creates a new context, which emphasizes the work’s inherent idealism and distinctiveness from the built environment. The scaled-down versions of Canadian art, often familiar and nostalgic, are separated from the viewer on the outside looking inwards. The viewer of the painting becomes a voyeur in the scene, looking at the artistic representation of nature hanging on the wall as we do the natural landscape in our daily lives: from a distance.
In the same way that an urban dweller of today must travel to visit the landscape out of the city, the art lover visits the museum to see past depictions of Canadian landscapes. As we continue to urbanize as a nation, we must travel both further in distance to visit natural Canada, and in our art, we must travel further back in time to find depictions of the landscape that match this experience.
My hope is to address the tension between the art that presents itself as an authentic representation of Canada in contrast to the contemporary urban landscape that is present around us; to question if those paintings of our past still hold resonance today, or if they are anachronistic images in need of updating.