There is a vast difference in the subject matter and technique of Will Forrestall and Stephen Scott, but they share a common bond in their dedication to realism. They share other things as well. Both live in Fredericton, New Brunswick; they both attended the same art school, Mount Allison University. They are both senior artists and, most important, they are friends who talk to each other about their art and have done so for years.
Will works almost exclusively in egg tempera while Stephen paints in oil and watercolour. Will’s paintings are worked up from preparatory drawings while the majority of Stephen’s paintings, in this exhibition, are plein-air (painted directly from nature). The observation of the natural world is a quality that these two artists have in common. They use the loaded word ‘gaze’ in the title of their exhibition. Gaze is often equated today in a negative sense as in the male gaze, but their meaning is more traditional, referring to a fixed or intent look. Their paintings do reflect their deeply felt philosophy on the nature and meaning of contemporary art.
I have talked to Forrestall and Scott many times about their art, but it is their paintings that speak to me most directly. James Joyce says in his, the Portrait of the Artist: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” In other words, that art can be viewed apart from the artist who created it. This is not to say that the artist’s ideas and thoughts, are not important but rather, that a good art work must stand on its own merits. Forrestall’s lilies and coffee pots take on an importance that belies their mundaneness and Scott’s paintings are more than pictures of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia landscapes. Both artists’ work speaks to the world of universal values.
I was at this exhibition with two friends, neither one an artist, but they certainly understood the paintings and knew that they represented more than pictures of realistic things. Good art’s parlour trick is to stop viewers in their tracks and give them cause to think about what they are seeing. Realistic painting is a bit of smoke and mirrors. It is an illusion of reality. Will’s flowers and coffee pots are more than they seem and Stephen’s landscapes are about more than the place. Painting is a chance for reflection.
Will’s, Coffee and Flowers, (2012), offers a chance to reflect on the nature of objects; the coffee pots permanence versus the transience of the lilies. It is a 21st century take on the 16th century Dutch idea of nature morte transcending common still life with an often hidden comment on the fleeting quality of life. Stephen also owes a debt to Dutch and Flemish painters of the same period who brought bourgeois and secular values to landscape painting. Both his painting Storm Front, (2014), and his watercolour Study for Storm Front, (2014), are examples of landscape painting that brings universal human values to the genre. The study was done on site and the painting, from the watercolour, in the studio. The location, the Bay of Fundy, is not as important as the image of a coming storm and the change that it will bring. It is something that most viewers will understand independent of the painting’s geographic location.
Forrestall uses egg tempera in a very precise fashion, building the painting surface to completion through minute cross hatching, but the detail is united as you stand back from the pictures. His paintings possess a quiet contemplative quality that draws you in and holds your attention. The works in the exhibition, with one exception, are generally larger works than those of Scott’s. While Will’s paintings are realistic they are also abstract. The lilies in Coffee and Flowers and in Three in Blue, (2011) are in a very different space and scale from their backgrounds, but they are visually logical.
Many of Scott’s paintings in the exhibition are very small at some five by seven inches no more than sketches, really, but they offer an eyeful. They remind me of the best small oil sketches of the Group of Seven. He is able in a few well- delivered brush strokes to capture the essence of a situation. When viewed closely his paintings are totally abstract, but, like Forrestall’s work, when viewed from a proper distance, fall together beautifully. He uses paint as a musician uses notes to build a melody. In music, it’s what’s not there—the silence between notes—that is important. Similarly in Scott’s paintings, it’s what we think we see that’s important. He makes our eyes, and our brains, work to complete the picture.
As artists, Forrestall and Scott have worked for a very long time–between thirty and forty years–dedicated to a continued commitment to realism. Their work is different, but they share a constant belief in realism. Isolation from artistic centres like Toronto and Montreal might be a reason for their devotion to their respective visions. They are certainly aware of what is going in both Canada and the rest of world, but they choose to work near to where they were born and received their artistic training. It’s good to see art that is about quality and craftsmanship and not just about keeping up with fashion.