Kim Ondaatje's Steetley on Highway #5
Kim Ondaatje’s current exhibition at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, ON surveys a career spanning over fifty years, and in doing so, serves to entrench the artist within the canon of the Canadian landscape tradition. Ondaatje’s three major bodies of work are emphasized in the show and include the Hill series, which harkens back to the sumptuous canvases of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, The House on Piccadilly Street, a pointed investigation of domestic vernacular spaces with a nod to London-based artists Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe, and finally the Factory series. Running from 1970 to 1974, the Factory works represent a calculated ethic grounded in conservation and sustainability, as well as a subtle condemnation of the havoc-wreaking industries that tattoo the landscape.
The series was initiated when Ondaatje encountered a thin grey residue from a nearby cement factory that blanketed her family cottage. Around the same time, she was reading Rachel Carson’s vastly influential 1962 book Silent Spring, which criticized the culture of pollution and pesticide use in the United States at the time. She began to study and photograph the locations of various factories in London, Toronto, and Sudbury. For this, she can be said to be one of the forerunners of internationally-acclaimed (and often criticized) Canadian environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky.
Take, for example, 1971’s Steetley on Highway #5. Here Ondaatje layers thin washes of acrylic paint to texture the smog and fog emitting from two tall smokestacks positioned centre-left of the canvas. Using seemingly unconventional materials and objects such as masking tape, fishing line, toothpicks, and other media, Ondaatje builds up layers to portray a realistic sense of three-dimensionality. Though her colour palette is relatively subdued and selective—deadened blues and impenetrable greys—bold colours including goldenrod yellows and maroon reds dot the vast landscape of the canvas: a silo of the factory building and two heavy-duty trucks. Their position, just below dead centre of the painting, cleverly helps to maintain its balance, unity, and harmony. However, off into the deep distance stands another colour, a tiny speck of red paint on a pole meant to signify the Canadian flag, which quite literally fixes the painting, and its loaded subject matter, within Canada.
Essentially, in the Factory series, CO2 and heavy metal emissions masquerade as sensuous and curtailing paint, which is why much of these works exist in a liminal state, somewhere in the gulf between beautiful and sinister. The retrospective positions Ondaatje within the tradition of Canadian painting but it may do something else; it delivers a nuanced illustration of environmental concerns in Canada before they gained currency.
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