Matt Bahen

Barrie, Ontario

Matt Bahen: The Patience of the Earth (2013): Oil on canvas, 78 x 108 inches. Images courtesy the artist and LE Gallery, Toronto.Matt Bahen: The Patience of the Earth (2013): Oil on canvas, 78 x 108 inches. Images courtesy the artist and LE Gallery, Toronto.By Carol-Ann M. Ryan

Matt Bahen
MacLaren Art Centre
June 8 – September 1, 2013

In his first public gallery exhibition, Matt Bahen presents a contemplative series of paintings that extend and challenge the tradition of landscape in Canada. His imagery is dark, painted in an earthy palette made warm with light and promises of hope. Entitled Gravity’s Faith, the exhibition features seven large-scale paintings. The work demonstrates a confidence that comes when an artist truly knows their medium. Bahen’s practice, developed over a decade, has maintained a painterly quality. The subject matter has shifted in that time from the battlefield and machines of war to haunting landscapes and abandoned religious architecture. Although conflict was an initial interest, he recently engaged with his subject in broader terms, focusing on unnecessary loss.

Matt Bahen: Gravity’s Faith (2013): Oil on canvas, 78 x 78 inches.Matt Bahen: Gravity’s Faith (2013): Oil on canvas, 78 x 78 inches.A palpable sense of loneliness pervades the gallery and emanates from works like The Patience of the Earth (2012). The largest piece, it illustrates a church interior that pulls the viewer in by its sunlight-filled aisle. Although glorious at first glance, the nave is shadowy and the rest of the picture is quite eerie. Destroyed furniture suggests abandonment; the only living presence are two stray dogs wandering through the detritus. The scenario poses many disturbing questions, but the light signals redemption and a future that is brighter than the present. As with most of Bahen’s paintings, this one was executed in heavy impasto. The textured browns and grays meld together when viewed up close, condensing the dichotomous church scene into an abstract image that is hard and muddy.

Four of the seven paintings displayed are unpopulated landscapes emphasizing the unforgiving nature of wilderness. Focusing on harsh realities sets Bahen apart from classic Group of Seven representations. Their goal was to capture the striking ruggedness of the Canadian landscape, en plein air, in a distinct painting style. Bahen works from photographs, often several, that he then edits and re-imagines for each composition. He does not paint the glimmering snow of winter or Technicolor hues of a summer sunset, rather dense compositions that reveal a place and time that, as noted in the curatorial statement, falls somewhere between human abandonment and natural reclamation. Traditionally, the sky encompasses two-thirds of the picture plane in landscape but, in these works, it is revealed in reflection only. Though somewhat sombre for the reduced palette and focus on the ground, the human scale of the stretchers delivers the images to the viewer, inviting a physical connection and meditation. In Gravity’s Faith (2013), a tightly cropped white rapid flows alongside a dim forest and rushes into the foreground. The dark vegetation and riverbed serve as a frame from which the thickly painted water, white spray and foam threaten to spill onto the gallery floor.

Bahen’s sensitive renderings are brooding and atmospheric, a quality shared with the great Tom Thomson. However, his work has a distinct aim. At first glance, it is empty and lonely but, upon further examination, it is full of life. Bahen investigates the darker side of life to find the light, acknowledging what is past, present and looking towards that yet to come.

[Editor's note: This review was accepted for publication prior to Ms. Ryan's assuming the position of Acting Registrar at the MacLaren Art Centre. We congratulate her on her new position.]