The 20th-century repeatedly sounded the death knell of painting. And in a technologically negotiated urbanized culture how could landscape painting be but quaint and nostalgic? Yet, always, when we wake up each morning it is with our physical bodies and our five senses that we reach out to reclaim the world and to restore it to palpable reality. Knowing this, painting reconfirms the corporeality of the body and the artist’s ability to bring matter to imaginative life. Painting therefore has continued to flourish. So too has the painting of people and houses and trees because the act of shaping matter into their depiction is to discover bodies and things more fully, to learn to inhabit their spaces, to embody a sense of their place. It is to achieve some sureness, as Robert Frost has said, “a clarification of life….in a momentary stay against confusion.”
Dorothy Knowles’ life-long subject is the landscape of the Canadian west. She has traveled the prairies and into the Rockies and continued onwards to the Pacific Ocean. But above all it is the parklands of northern Saskatchewan, their rolling plains and the rivers and valleys cutting into them that she has studied with loving attentiveness. This is her Algonquin Park and her north of Lake Superior. It is a farmed and manshaped land, and yet too vast to walk, its horizons lying only at the distance encompassed by the imagination.
It is a landscape sometimes measured by lines of fence posts, maybe the glimpse of a road, but otherwise it is as unpeopled as a Group of Seven wilderness. Only when Knowles lowers her eyes onto nearby reeds and grasses may we find a foothold, but the foreground is tangled and muddy.
Knowles has been celebrated both for her visual acuity and for her formal precision: her way with planar structures, her use of the brushstroke, and her respect for the fact of her paper or canvas support. With such techniques she builds her pictures in the tradition of Monet and Cézanne, or indeed in the spirit of colourfield abstraction as it has thrived on the prairies in the wake of Emma Lake. But her ways in and out of the landscape and pictorial space are many and varied and she can be as monumental as a dunescape by Mondrian or as intimate as Art Nouveau filigree.