When Tom Thomson set out for Algonquin Park a century ago, the Canadian landscape seemed to be a space made for boundless self-invention, an open wilderness the artist represented in painted colour and form. It remains a site brimming with connotations of renewal, but our encounter with nature is now fraught with uncertainty. It seems the landscape can no longer serve so easily as an escape from, or counterpoint to, modern life. Now, most strikingly in Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the vast interventions of industry, the landscape registers modernity’s apparently limitless and rapacious reach.
Damien Worth describes his paintings as “landscapes in crisis.” Bracketed by two copies that appear to illustrate the parameters of his project-one a Thomson, the other a Burtynsky-Worth’s work engages with the difficult history of landscape imagery and its relationship with the practice of painting itself. Where once paint on canvas could embody open, unarticulated, natural space, now it is embedded in a more troubled relationship with memory, dreams, and fantasies of escape. Painting appears, under the pressure of the photographic and the digital, to be in a state of permanent crisis in which its materials-in Worth’s case layers of oil, acrylic, latex, and collaged found imagery-can no longer be experienced as neutral vehicles, neither of personal expression, nor of perspective.
They are no less bracing for this loss, however, as the artist capitalizes on the interplay of form, colour, and material that continues to provide painting with the visceral charge of immediacy, and yet works to open new entry points or angles onto the medium and its history. Worth approaches painted space in at least two ways simultaneously. On the one hand, he creates layered and material surfaces; on the other, he imagines immersive landscapes, built out of opaque liquids that deflect illusory space. There is no airy “perspective” in these works, even as they frequently depict what appear to be skies and clouds (often represented by means of various non-Western traditions of space-making). The analogy between the space of nature and its representation has broken down. Alongside his recent paintings, Worth has included an exploration of new technologies for visualizing space-painted landscapes transformed into virtual realities-that seeks to expand painting’s central function, the creation of new visible worlds bound to this one.
Damien Worth: Painted Space is curated by Pan Wendt.
Emerging Artists Series is supported by the RBC Foundation.