With a background in biology, conceptual landscape photographer Lorraine Gilbert has turned to the natural environment as her subject matter since first embarking upon her artistic career in the early 1980s. From her heroic tree-planter portraits to her observations of the flora found in the Lebreton Flats of downtown Ottawa, her practice has critically explored the idea of learned or received notions of nature. With this background, Gilbert’s expressed interest in the Group of Seven and their populist legacy as the grandfathers of Canadian landscape art is hardly surprising. She feels that as an artist she had worked for years with landscape as her subject matter without looking back to what she calls “this important moment of change in Canadian art history.” For this series, entitled Eagle's Nest, Gilbert turned to an exploration of the Group’s legacy as a whole, and subsequently the greater theme of artistic choice by re-examining one geographical area in which the Group worked – specifically looking at its artistic past and current contradictions.
In the fall of 2012, Gilbert travelled for the first time to Algonquin Park, a setting made famous by the Group, and focused on the town of Bancroft. Though Bancroft is one of a myriad of similar small Ontario towns (downtowns emptied in favour of identical big box stores and restaurants), it holds a unique position on the edge of Algonquin Park. The tension between the vast wilderness of the Provincial Park with the town’s golf course and Tim Hortons’ drive-through is the focus of this new work, which consists of a large-format digitally manipulated photograph. In Eagle's Nest, Bancroft, Gilbert distinguishes small picturesque moments found within the scope of this conflicted landscape. She digitally smoothes the detail of distinct areas of the image, which blurs the sharp edges and makes them appear painterly. By doing so, she points out how artists choose and frame what is portrayed as “picturesque” for their viewers. The artist chooses the landscape, the collector chooses the art, and a legacy is created.
It was through her Icelandic Walks series in 2002 that Gilbert first began to use digital manipulation within her photographs. Conceptually, this gave her greater tools for a critical engagement with the seemingly paradoxical worlds around her, through what she called “juxtaposing fact and fiction within a documentary practice.” She continued this in Le Patrimoine (2006), a series of black and white photographs that depict the collision of idyllic landscapes with the reality of the economy in contemporary life in rural Quebec. Writer Randy Innes describes this series as offering us “a visual site where we may reflect upon what remains to be inherited, to whom this inheritance is destined, and the places we create for ourselves in this extended cultural narrative.” Gilbert’s works presented here likewise pose questions about that same extended cultural narrative. This time, however, with regards to our nationalistic landscape heritage as embodied in the work and philosophy of the Group of Seven; how it was formed, what it embodied, and how that has carried forth today, unlikely juxtapositions and all.
By Catherine Sinclair, Curator
York river Detail from Eagle's Nest