The worlds created by the exquisitely detailed watercolours in Tristram Landsdowne’s solo exhibition, Provisional Futures at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, are paradoxical and puzzling, like a two-faced Janus that can see in both directions at once. Elements of destruction are depicted in soothing pastel colours. There is evidence of human activity (platforms, pillars, doors, staircases), but not a soul in sight. Lush vegetation springs enthusiastically out of inhospitable rock surfaces and cliffs. A similarly jarring experience launched Lansdowne’s artistic voyage, as he moved from the idyllic landscapes of his home town in Victoria BC to the hard-surface, skyscraper world of downtown Toronto.
The landscape in Victoria BC where Tristram Lansdowne grew up.
The setting Lansdowne moved to from Victoria to attend OCAD, the large white building pictured above.
Tristram’s surroundings once he moved to Toronto to attend OCAD, the black and white building in this photograph.
“I went from spending time outdoors, with seascapes, fields and mountains, to the claustrophobic surroundings of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design on McCaul Street in downtown Toronto). “It was jarring. There was no landscape,” he noted at a recent artist’s talk, presented in conjunction with the exhibition opening. “But there was infrastructure – concrete, metal and buildings.” He became interested in how these elements interacted with the landscape, and began to imagine an elaborate below-ground infrastructure world in his paintings, working within a dichotomous framework of what can be seen and what cannot.
Tristram Lansdowne, Wabash Community Centre, 2008 – an example of the work in which he begins imagining elaborate worlds below-ground.
“That dichotomy provides a way to explore an alternative narrative. I am interested in images that are hybrid… and in finding a purpose for something that has been abandoned.” His work has been strongly influenced by his father, the renowned wildlife artist J. Fenwick Lansdowne, and by the grandfather of German landscape painters, Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840). Friedrich’s work was the starting point for After The Storm (2010), one of the works included in the current exhibition. “I’ve always loved Friedrich’s paintings of oak trees,” explains Lansdowne, “so I decided I would make a painting of an oak tree. But this is where it gets really nerdy – European Oaks don’t look anything like the oak trees I grew up with, called Gary Oaks. I couldn’t really find a tree that fit the bill, so I painted a “Frankentree,” concocted from different images. Then I crashed a piece of architecture into the top branches… to acknowledge that I was crashing Friedrich’s party, that I was invading it in a clumsy way, intruding upon it. “
Caspar David Friedrich. Oak Tree in the Snow, 1929Gary Oak
Tristram Lansdowne, After the Storm, 2010
Another striking motif in Lansdowne’s work is that of the island, which serves as a metaphor for a fully formed world wherein the author or narrator establishes the parameters of the story. While the islands may be fictional and not actual places one can find on a map, they are nevertheless built out of historical references. His use of lush tropical colours, imagery that includes ruins, waterfalls and starry skies, and backgrounds that look like museum-type diorama settings only serve to “heighten the artifice as much as possible. “ He describes the use of these elements as intentionally “cheesy.’
Tristram Lansdowne, Axis Mundi, 2012, an example of the island motif.
“Islands have been used in plenty of works of literature that deal with Utopian ideas. Most importantly, it is a limited universe, one in which you as the creator can choose a set of variables and let them play out.” His use of watercolours as a medium is in itself a paradox. Often associated with hobbyist and amateur painters, he sees watercolour as a hybrid medium. “Some call it drawing, some call it painting. It has been used in different fields as well as in art, architecture and botany.”
In Lansdowne’s expert hands the end result is intricate, intense, detailed and fascinating.
Tristram Lansdowne, The Destroyer (homage to Bruno Taut), 2012
As one Gallery visitor to the exhibition noted in the guest book, “It is retrospective as well as futuristic. It shows the tragedy of a human-destroyed earth by juxtaposing it with a beautiful past”.
What sides do you see?
Provisional Futures is on view in the Eastman Gallery through Sunday April 27.
By: Caroline Oliver, Director of Development & Marketing, KW|AG