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Michael Hunter and Helen Bartens, Eva Brook Donly Museum By Sylvia Wilson

March 1 - 30 2013

Eva Brook Donly Museum and Archives Norfolk Historical Society

Michael Hunter and Helen Bartens, Eva Brook Donly Museum
Review of the exhibit: The Environment in the Language of Contemporary Canadian Artists
By Sylvia Wilson

It was a nice late March evening in Ontario when Helen Bartens a curator/ manager of Eva Brook Donly introduced the lecture delivered by the local artist Michael Hunter, whose work is exhibited with that of Barbara Clark-Fleming at the local exhibit organised to explore contemporary issues.

Can art help us to understand and improve our relationship with the environment? This was the challenging question Michael attempted to answer in a stimulating lecture at the museum. Introducing the speaker, Helen Bartens said that the exhibit currently showing at Eva Brook Donly museum of work by Michael Hunter and Barbara Clark-Fleming raised important questions about the relationship between art and the environment. She explained that she wanted to provide an opportunity for local residents to be exposed to nature in a more thoughtful and imaginative way.

What is particularly special about this work is the immediate subject matter. It is not a coincidence that the work of both artists is placed so closely together. The works of Michael Hunter and Barbara Clark-Fleming have certain strengths in common and in their paintings they share their reflections of the hidden consciousness of humans through landscape, through farm scenes, and images of Port Dover and the Lake Erie shore.

As two Canadian artists with high reputations in contemporary art, Clark-Fleming and Hunter represent wildlife through depicting the reality of their individual vision and supplementing it with more emotive effects and forms that symbolize the realm of the unconscious. Hunter and Clark-Fleming through their art pay homage to nature, in their own distinct ways of seeing. However, through their attraction to the landscape comes a shared passion to express its form in new and idiosyncratic ways. Through this expressive transmutation of nature both Hunter's and Clark-Fleming's paintings try to convey ideas about the harmony of the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

There is a need for integrated universal understanding to solve problems of living species on a global scale. Such an understanding is lacking in much current scholarship. There is a significant lack of understanding of why the environment matters to people. Sensible as such a holistic ethic might be, in that it genuinely reflects current
scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of systems vital to human well being, growth is probably no longer necessary to human happiness, at least in the developed world, yet it continues apace. The capitalist growth economy is continually expanding to encompass the whole of the global economy as a single, complex organic unit governed by market principles that demand its continued expansion in order to maintain its stability. But what if it is not? What if industrial modernity is, rather problematic to human happiness? These are the issues that Hunter's art forces us to confront and think about.

Michael Hunter's sequence of pictures depicting the decay of fish illustrates this theme. These pictures are objectively presented to symbolise his beliefs about environmental pollution and its deteriorating effect on species. He paints things that he is passionate about. Art, he clearly believes, is a medium which can raise awareness of pollution. In these pictures the artist shows the fish hanging like the victims of an execution which gives the work the impact of a sort of manifesto. The viewer is led to reflect that he may be embodying in his actual painting the idea of pollution in a most drastic way. The powerful image of the hanging fish thus illustrates the death of human species. Creating that picture gives him the possibility to externalize emotions and events too painful to speak out loud and it is one of the only means of conveying the complexities of painful experiences,unspoken fears, anxieties, or guilt. He can "kill" unspoken feelings. One senses that he is trying in some way to repair the damage that has been done.

Creating art is like creating theater in which the audience have an opportunity to experience what we want them to experience. Yet the experience of real life is more than this. Art about real life breaks that barrier of separation and allows us, somehow, to experience the worlds of another person and at the same time experience ourselves in our own world. Art ties us and our world to another person and his or her world. We come to experience and understand, emotionally and intellectually, that our lives connect to another's life, and our world connects to another's world.

The art of Michael Hunter, with its powerful sense of intellectual challenge, highlights the fact that understanding the role of art in the contemporary context is both a theoretical and subjective question. The notion that practice can be explained through theorising - that is, the best possible conceptual constructs used as the basis of analysis to explain a set of factors that underlie the principles and reasons behind practice, is not of course universally accepted. Many visitors to galleries simply prefer to look. The theoretical analysis of art, unlike applied science, relies on the subjective consciousness of the individual rather than a systematic analysis of quantifiable causes. Art, like language, is a system of symbolic exchange that enables exchanges of meaning. Tolstoy's statement that "art is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feeling", expresses a view that art contributes to social cohesion. The point is that art does not constitute a theory in itself, but is a consequence of the real and/or imagined sense of human organization and meaning. Michael Hunter uses texts in his art as he stated in his interview with the author of this review he usually listens to CBC whilst painting. The images in Michael Hunter's paintings are shocking but they are meant to reflect his opinions of the world and what the true meaning of art is. Hunter's pictures to some extent play a game with the viewer; they are in this sense a performance. For example, the picture entitled " Anybody seen Pete" is based on a story about encountering a heron eating chipmunks.

Sylvia Anna Wilson, BA (Hons), MA