John Armstrong

Robert Wiens
Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto

Robert Wiens’s six three-metre-high watercolours of wizened pine trunks set Susan Hobbs’ long, thin gallery up as a kind of back-alley Valhalla, a nave of virtual pillars reaching to the whitewashed ceiling’s exposed wooden joists and cross braces. This allusion to a sacred space conjures a particularly Canadian obeisance to the majesty of the northern forest that, in art, means the depiction of towering conifers. From Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven through to Emily Carr, the pine and its cousins are ever-present in brooding elemental dramas. As over-played as they may be, such early 20th-century paintings still form our de facto image of vigourous old-growth forests, which now exist only in isolated pockets. These venerable trees have come to symbolize legal battles involving Native land claims, and the conflicting interests of loggers and ecologists. Wiens’s two 1997 trips to Northern Ontario’s contested Temagami region provided him with photographic source material for his revisioning of this most Canadian motif.

Wiens, who has long fashioned sculptural fragments of heroic monuments (and juxtaposed them with images of public protests), approaches the grandeur of his recent arboreal subjects with his characteristic mix of scrutiny and parenthetical romance. Four white-pine and two red-pine trunks are reproduced to scale in watercolour renderings delicately cropped by a pencil line and unpainted paper border to form perfect pictorial rectangles — perhaps underlining the market value of these two important lumber trees. Rootless and deprived of their flared trunks at ground level, the trees’ detachment is further increased by the shadow cast over the lowest portions of some of them. The trunks appear to emerge from a murky, indeterminate forest floor into a verdant half light.

All this careful promotion of mood is countered by Wiens’s almost botanical dedication to verisimilitude. Although the images are all equal in height, their width is subtly individuated to approximate the real diameter of the Temagami trees. At close range, the watercolours reveal themselves to be meticulous portraits of individual trees’ bark — even wildlife art’s interest in obsessively tickled-up material description is invoked. Wiens projects his slides onto the watercolour paper and pencils-in contours of the bark’s fissures and flaking (along with any attendant lichen and fallen pine needles) in a manner that recalls the tapestry-like divisions in the Group of Seven’s watercolour sketches, complete with their abbreviated colour notations. Wiens’s palette, unlike that of his lyric forebears, relies heavily on black to model an airless range of siennas, umbers and viridians.

When standing in front of Wiens’s recreations of pines that can live up to 350 years, one does sense the vitality and sheer magnitude of such trees. Certainly, the presence of Wiens’s myriad and legible brushstrokes attests to a disciplined craft in homage to his subject. But Wiens creates, in his pinpoint framing and cool description, a chilly distance between the living trees and what we see in the gallery: he gestures both romance and the deadpan optics of a ledger. Without any didactic tone, these paintings chronicle a simultaneously grim and poetic politic.

“Robert Wiens.” C International Contemporary Art 59, September 1998 - November 1998