JANUARY 1-31, 2009

Electrifying the Bleakest of Landscapes

Gary Michael Dault
Gallery Going

Martha Eleen
at the Cameron House
408 Queen Street West
High Tech road #6 (2007) by Martha Eleen: a vividness of response lifts her small paintings into the realm of the uncanny.

For most of us, hydro towers are either an annoyance—the visual equivalent of static on the radio—or simply invisible: just something we edit out, in order to free up the landscape.

But not for Martha Eleen. The latest exhibition of her paintings, High Tech Road—now at Toronto’s legendary Cameron House pub—is made up almost entirely of hydro towers. Hydro towers and, as in *High Tech Road #6*, reproduced here, the slabby, monolithic buildings of which big box malls are made.

For Eleen, painting is a procession of intensities. And these claiming intensities are such, for her, that what might reasonably be seen as banality, generates instead a vividness of response that lifts her small (16” x 16”) oil paintings on wood into the realm of the uncanny. “I am drawn to the places where there is no context for paying attention,” she writes in her artist’s statement (see “The experience involves stepping outside of social expectation and conditioned response.”

This stepping outside of social expectation and conditioned response was some time coming. It really began in 2002, when Eleen—who had been painting the landscape around the family cabin near Port Hope, Ontario, in a more or less conventional way (Windy Valley, 1995-2001)—began to grow more absorbed by the drive back to Toronto on the 401 highway than she had been by the pastoral splendour of lakes and woods. She increasingly came to see the drive as a romantic adventure. “The light standards gleaming in the night, the coffee you stop for,” she once explained to me, “you just feel sort of free.”

The freedom extended into her decision to paint from her parked car, on a small impromptu painting-table she devised that sits on her lap. She painted what she saw that way, which, for the works that made up Into the 905: The View from the Car (2002-2005), consisted, for the most part, of the upper levels of high-rise apartment buildings and office buildings. This was followed by her getting out of the car and undertaking a painting sojourn—a residency, actually—in the Peace Village subdivision of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the city of Vaughan (Peace Village, 2006). She sees the current exhibition, High Tech Road, as essentially Part 3 of Into the 905: The View from the Car.

But for Eleen, it was more than just being back on the road again. Her having been a real (albeit temporary) part of a suburban, bedroom community only served to heighten her visual enjoyment of the suburban surround: as she writes in her online statement, “an observational painting practice is less an accumulation of technical skills and more an increasing ability to be present.”

And in High Tech Road, Eleen is wholeheartedly, vividly present to the hydro lines and towers and malls that make up her exquisite show. “How does something as imposing as a big box mall or the…hydro towers with their river of current and chaos of elegant lines fall so beneath our notice as to become almost invisible?” she writes.
Gazing upon Eleen’s hydro towers makes it well nigh impossible to ignore them from now on. “I just think they’re beautiful!” she told me recently on the phone from her Toronto studio. “As you drive by them, they turn and flatten out and face you—they’re so huge and so meaningful—and yet they’re almost unseen!” I asked her once if she considered herself a landscape painter. No, she replied, she paints “the cultural landscape. I’m interested,” she stressed, in how people affect the landscape and how landscape affects lifestyle.” It’s a serious job of work. And one that Martha Eleen is totally up to.