William Perehudoff’s early formation has been researched and discussed by Nancy Tousley in the catalogue of the exhibition William Perehudoff, which she organized for the MendelArtGallery in 1993, while his early work has been the subject of an informative essay by Roald Nasgaard. It’s a remarkable story – a combination of sheer talent, creative drive, formal and self-education, the example of local mentors, encouragement and assistance, substantial personal effort, and, sometimes, plain good luck. Yet another key aspect of Perehudoff’s story is his enduring relationship to place – more precisely, to a distinctive landscape with a very particular character. It is possible, then, and perhaps even useful to consider the generous geometry, ample space, and luminous hues of Perehudoff’s mature abstractions as deriving from his youthful experience of the prairies, in the same way that Matisse’s astonishing use of colour and patterns, and, often, of textile imagery itself, throughout his long life as a painter, can be thought about as resulting from his early experience of the luxury fabrics produced in Bohain. This is not to suggest that Perehudoff’s abstractions should be interpreted as ‘disguised landscapes.’ Quite the contrary. They are self-evidently autonomous constructions in the language of paint, deliberately detached from explicit reference. Their aim is plainly not to replicate appearances but rather to stir our emotions through wordless relationships of colour, eloquent intervals, thoughtfully deployed shapes, and nuanced surfaces.
Perehudoff has said he prefers paintings ‘with a kind of pulse,’ by which he meant an active interplay among the elements of the picture. He provokes this pulse by variations of colour and intensity, as well as by subtle shifts away from horizontality or verticality, within his compositions, in order to create delicate, enlivening imbalances. These are all wholly formal concerns, yet we tend to interpret horizontal lines, as references to a literal horizon or, at least, to acknowledge them as allusions to the big divisions of the natural world – earth, sky, and water. In the same way, we are willing to allow the levitating disc in his paintings to evoke, at least momentarily, the sun or moon, and to permit the serried narrow verticals to suggest tree trunks, and so on. Whatever their origins, these associations seem inevitable to anyone who has spent any time in the seemingly limitless space of the Canadian prairies, in farming country, like the area near Perehudoff’s boyhood home, where the endless plains are divided by the neat geometry of a grid of roads, under a panoramic sky, where fields of yellow canola and blue flax compete for intensity, clumps of scrub punctuate, and the light reflected off of sloughs interrupts the flat expanse with episodes of unpredictable brilliance. It is impossible to resist making some sort of equation, however tenuous, between the clear light, the flat terrain, and the expansive spaces of Saskatchewan and the radiant colour, frontality, and openness of Perehudoff’s mature abstractions. (It is worth noting, however, that the singing colour that so distinguishes Perehudoff’s abstractions has been present in his work almost from the beginning, whatever his subject matter; early portraits are constructed with broad passages of heightened reds and blues that seem equally indebted to Paul Cézanne and to personal inclination, quite apart from any possible connection to prairie light or local colour.)