Canada has long seen itself as a land filled with hewers of trees and drawers of water – a strong, self-reliant, resource-oriented nation, sure of itself in the woods, both real and metaphorical. Following logically from this vision is the physical reality of our nation being filled with trees for hewing and water for drawing, as well as a matching symbolic reality of a forested and lake-rich homeland of the mind. Following logically as well from this notion of active wilderness is a sense that Canadians of all stripes – from lumberjacks to politicians to artists – must somehow come to grips with this forested and lake-fronted reality in a fashion that is both practical and sublime. In short, much in the way that atheists are not welcome in foxholes, wilderness greenhorns are denied full Canuck bragging rights. To challenge Pierre Berton, a true Canadian is not really the person skilled enough to make love in a canoe without tipping, but the person lake-and-forest-besotted enough to consider that skill one that would need to be forever articulated, never mind honed. The upshot of this centuries-long Canadian obsession is a nation in love as one with their shore-hugging cottages (or camps, cabins or whatever regional variant you call the rough-hewn home that is between the trees and lapping waves), as well as a country of artists all taking their turns painting that famous iconic lonely tree, huddling beside the rough waters of Point Wherever-They-May-Be.
As a true Canadian landscape painter, David Alexander has not stinted on his duty to nation, nor to forest glade and wide open blue embracing the broad mythic reality that this subject matter implies for the country. But Alexander tackles these canonic subjects in his own quixotic and naturally deconstructive fashion. Since the 1980s with his tree images, and his water portraits from the early years of this century, Alexander has been seeking to “take the myth apart” vis-à-vis the familiar call of waterfront and glade, starting with the notion that while this subject matter particularly enchants Canadians, it is a deeply universal trope. “It’s an unquestionable given,” says Alexander in a personal interview in front of an array of recent paintings of water and trees, “that this wooded, watered reality does affect us as Canadians, the real debate is how it affects us, especially those of us living on the tree-and-lake-sparse prairies, and how this affects our larger sense of identity.”
“Is the image of a tree a surrogate for a human?” Alexander goes on, “Yes it is. We need to omit that as a question and put the tree into context with the history of the forest across human existence. Yes we have swallowed the myth of the land hook, line and sinker, and we are also seeing a deconstruction of that myth. This only follows, that as we dismantle the myth, it comes back again in other forms.”
When Alexander talks of history he is talking as much about his own multi-generational relationship with tree and shore as he is about a drier, intellectual approach fed by reading and academic debates. As the child of a tugboat captain on the BC coast, Alexander grew up dragging the nation’s endless resources up and down the rocky edges of the western edge of the country. “I now find myself looking back at those landforms, the influence of that experience.” he says. Going one step further, the artist equates his movement from direct resource manipulation to the indirect representation of it to a similar paradigm shift endured by earlier generations who slipped seamlessly from the era of buggies and horse whips to automobiles. It is a lateral movement, from an historic myth of resource to a more contemporary sense of nationhood. The upshot of this paradigm shift is a dual artistic reality for Alexander: in the first he sees himself as being so colonized by the endless landscape – real and mythic – that he cannot paint without painting landscape. In the second, he feels he still has had to earn the right to paint landscape, realizing that, from the get-go, the landscape in which he was living was not that painted by first European, and then Canadian definers of vista. Typical of any artist working with a subject located at the fringes of artistic reality, Alexander as a newly minted prairie landscape painter in the 1960s found himself working through the whole history of the landscape trope. He was never afraid to tweak the expectations of what a vista should or should not be. His more daunting task was dragging the obviously morphing Canadian vista in his words “kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.” As a case-in-point, when asked about his tendency to not portray the tops of the mountains in his now iconic alpine vistas, Alexander replied that he does not need to paint them in. “The viewer naturally fills in the missing parts in these paintings,” he explains, “we know that the mountain tops are there and what they look like” underlining that his paintings have always been more participatory than not. So rather than providing the viewer with an objective and spread-out-in-front-of-you vista, Alexander give the art lover a subjective view, more akin to that the hiker has when climbing a mountain. The romantic view is balanced with the contemporary reality of the landscape as a place that is lived in, occupied. Alexander goes on to say that ironically enough he feels the mountain tops are not that pretty and are not missed in his paintings.
This same extreme subjectivity on his part is evident as well in the artist’s tree and water paintings. If his tall mountains are devoid of their tops, Alexander’s tree portraits are all about tops, painted as though from a view seen lying on the forest floor. Perhaps you are giving yourself a short respite during a forest hike, craning your neck to break the cacophonic monotony of a plethora of tree trunks. In fact this point of view in his tree paintings was inspired by memories of his infant son lying in his crib, forced to stare upward in this way. Alexander was spurred to imagine what this gaze would take in.
The situation is the same with the artist’s water paintings. These are works that depict nothing but the reflective surfaces of bodies of water, the same view you get staring over the side of a canoe. Alexander has explored this in the past in his forestscape paintings. He is an avowed and accomplished outdoors person, and a canoeist of note. He paints from a deep, lived reality spent in the woods.
Talking with Alexander one quickly realizes that the tension he feels as a person who both loves and lives the reality of the forest and lake, and one who chose to move away from the subject in a realistic way, is one that is ripe for his own mining. He is a painter who skirts both realism and abstraction (it is ironic that some viewers have mistaken his all-surface water reflection paintings to be abstract works). He instead embraces the notion that the land itself becomes abstract as soon as one is not directly connected or beholden to it. If Canada truly is a land of water, says Alexander, then it is a land of quixotic impermanence, but on the other hand is “as solid as concrete.” In a sense Canada has no place as a place, only as it exists in a photograph, a painting, or in one’s memory. It calls to mind the saying about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice. Following on from this existentialist reality is the artistic fruit of a water image being as rich as he wants it to be. For Alexander, this philosophical mother lode means being able to paint water surfaces that are everything, because of this inherent nothingness. “I realized that these water surfaces hold all the landscape around them, including the sky. I see this in part because as a painter you are trained to see immensity, and there it was, in the water,” he says. “Mind you, it is the small pond that has the greatest immensity of information in its reflective surface because it has to encompass so much due to its tight relationship with everything around it. The open ocean is where you finally return to water referring only to itself.”
More than only an interplay of relationships, his richly coloured and heavily painted canvases also allow Alexander to both embrace and totally break free from historical artistic tropes. Embracing the idea that the mind will see what the mind will see, a viewer can see paint-for-paint’s sake in Alexander’s water vistas, and one can focus on the brushstrokes that have been so energetically and skillfully applied. Also you can compare the paintings to Alexander’s source photographs and be struck at how realistic the paintings actually are! “These water paintings remind us all that our views of the landscape are always reflections – and they are fragmented and constricted,” notes the artist. Taking Alexander’s logic to its extreme, we are left with a body of work that positions both vista and landscape as equal partners.
Simon Schama wrote in his seminal book Landscape and Memory that “the wilderness, after all, does not locate itself, does not name itself … nor could the wilderness venerate itself.” In the same spirit, Alexander embraces the swirling eddies of self-referentiality in his work, feeling the truth of painting being about painting, as well as about the idea and that “what” that the artist is going after. “To capture the viewer I have to realize that the first viewer is me, which means that I have to be very clear in making sure that I see what is most familiar with my relationship to the mountaintop, the tree, or the water’s surface,” he says. This is a brave and broad personal mandate. Faced with rapid urbanization and the razing of natural resources (we have surely all read that the areas of clear-cut forest in British Columbia can be seen from outer space) our relationship to landscape may never have been so vital and critical – and so complicated. We are stuck awkwardly among myths: happy as hewers of trees and drawers of water, as well as feeling completely alienated from those activities. We may be deep in the woods, yet strangers to the true wilds. A contemporary landscape artist like David Alexander can show us the way to paths that twist toward dreams of green we do not yet know.