“All gardening is landscape painting,” William Kent once said. But with climate change, how differently do we look at a landscape painting? Going into a museum today and looking at century old landscape paintings is one way of seeing how our planet has changed (or how we’ve destroyed our planet, depending on how you look at it).
Canadian artist Matt Bahen recently had a solo show of new paintings at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto, entitled The Promise, The Promise. These large-scale oil paintings look at how our planet has been destroyed. With references to literary masters like T.S. Eliot and Joseph Campbell, the paintings depict forest fires, muddy waters, floods and barbed wire. It is a sign of our times, or perhaps, one to come.
Bahen speaks from his Toronto studio about calamity, literary drama and environmental narratives.
So, this new series of paintings are inspired by literary works?
Matt Bahen: Most of the titles are taken from literary works, from TS Eliot to the Chinese science fiction writer, Liu Cixin. So it isn’t just old literature, as it’s nice to find new things, as well.
Some of the landscapes are based in British Columbia, when were you last there to visit?
When I was a musician and toured Canada with a rock band, we got to see the whole country. The last time I was in B.C. was five years ago. But I don’t tour anymore with the band, The Schomberg Fair. I was coming home with less money than I left with. So, since 2013, I’ve been focusing full time on painting.
Did you focus on just B.C. landscapes, or beyond?
They’re from all over. They’re all landscapes I’m familiar with, but their actual geographical locations are not that important. Because I’m familiar with the landscapes, I hope the viewer has an entrance to it, as well. You’ll notice there aren’t many tropical landscapes or desert scenes, or anything like that.
Canada has a long history of picturesque landscape art, what makes your work different or updated?
What I’ve tried to do is take a generic landscape and create tension within it, use a square canvas. I also haven’t used traditional blue skies, but grey skies or white. There’s one painting called ‘Quick said the bird, find them, find them,’ which depicts the Fraser River in B.C., which is quite muddy or turbulent. It’s just brown. Some of the paintings are from northern Ontario, which are similar to some European landscapes. But the paintings aren’t autobiographical or journalistic.
Why do some of the paintings have forest fires in them?
It’s a strong undercurent of what I’m thinking about – in today’s world, how can you look at a landscape painting and not think of climate change as a consideration? It’s about how the natural world is changing. Climate change is in a lot of literary works, nowadays, too.
How has climate change influenced landscape paintings, in your eyes?
It has changed it, for me. It’s a tricky thing. If you try to attack it head on, your work can become didactic, not as open. But if you have it as a tertiary aspect, that vibe can become a cross, a disturbance. Looking at the valley paintings, it’s hard not to notice the history of colonization, climate change, the possibility of forests being on fire.
There’s a painting called ‘What Might Have Been Or Could Been,’ why use barbed wire in this piece, and the few others that have them?
The barb wire paintings was a direct result of kids in cages. That isn’t right. I felt I needed to express that. It’s a sense of calamity. There’s also paintings where there’s a threshhold that you cross, a border. Others show a struggle, an aftermath and then a sense of home, or coming back home, where you are changed. That’s a feeling throughout many of the paintings. If you think about it, the meaningful events in our lives are generally processed through a narrative that we tell ourselves.