Black Ice: Prints from Newfoundland

Reviewed by: Grace Johnstone
Categories: Art - Culture
Black Ice review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Flora S. Nickerson Down on the Labrador / David Blackwood

It might seem odd that a show so deeply rooted in the disappearing customs, history and visual culture of Newfoundland and Labrador should drop anchor on the West Coast. But as AGGV curator Michelle Jacques explains, “there is, perhaps, something in our island experience and maritime history that makes Blackwood’s work resonate very deeply here.”

Black Ice is a travelling exhibit organized and curated by the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Katharine Lochnan, featuring more than 70 pieces of David Blackwood’s work dating back to the early 1970s. In addition to this trove of aquatint etchings, created by passing an etched metal plate covered with ink through a printing press, the show also presents artifacts and memorabilia from the artist’s personal collection, such as letters, photographs, maps, flags and preparatory drawings. 

Blackwood’s work feels almost from another era. It shares a disposition with the 18th century Romantic painters and the Hudson River School, whose paintings show human beings in awe of – and often struggling against – the majesty and raw force of the landscape around them. But instead of the raging rivers and vast mountains of the Hudson River Valley or European wilderness, Blackwood’s eye is captivated by towering icebergs, intrepid whaling vessels and black-clad figures hauling wooden houses over the ice. 

In Blackwood’s world, the landscape is something to be both feared and admired, and humans have to band together to appreciate and survive it. In "Flora S. Nickerson Down on the Labrador" (1978), a giant iceberg looms in the moonlight over the Flora S. Nickerson, which appears to be caught not in the moonlight, but in the iceberg’s implacable glare. The 71-year-old artist also celebrates local character; in "Lone Mummer Inside" (1979), he gives the monumentality of a great European portrait to a simple draped figure by a shack window. 

Blackwood was born in Wesleyville, Newfoundland, in the Bonavista North region. This port town served the Labrador schooner cod fishery and seal hunting industry, and fishers from the area had to navigate the southern migration of the Arctic ice fields each year. “It was a place of wind and fog and storms,” remembers Blackwood, adding that residents endured the harshness by sharing stories. Although he now resides in Ontario, Blackwood’s memories of Bonavista form the bedrock of an artistic practice that has lasted five decades, and he remains a storyteller who laments a way of life that is nearly gone. 

Exhibit visitors from the BC coast may be reminded of those subsistence ways of life that are currently under threat on their own shores. 

Black Ice: Prints from Newfoundland is on display at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, May 3 to Sept. 8, 2013.

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