Burnaby Art Gallery exhibition takes a serious look at Sybil Andrews

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      Sybil Andrews
      At the Burnaby Art Gallery until April 3

      Whether her subject was racing motorcycles or towering trees, logging trucks or concert halls, costumed dancers or plough horses, Sybil Andrews imbued her prints with extraordinary energy and enthusiasm. Influenced by Futurism and Vorticism, she employed swirling lines, streamlined forms, faceted planes, and dynamic combinations of pattern and colour to create an impression of movement and vitality.

      This small show, organized by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and on view at the Burnaby Art Gallery, reminds us that it’s time for another serious look at Andrews’s work. It’s been 29 years since the Glenbow Museum in Calgary played a major role in introducing her to a wide Canadian audience. An artist of international stature, born and trained in England and aligned there with an important school of modernist printmaking, Andrews was living quietly at that time in the Vancouver Island community of Campbell River. There, half a world and many decades away from her creative roots, she produced little-seen prints, drawings, and paintings, and gave art classes to locals in her modest beachside cottage. After the Glenbow’s 1982 retrospective exhibition and catalogue, which travelled across the country, Andrews emerged, at the age of 84, from the obscurity to which she had seemingly consigned herself.

      Most of what’s on view are her lively and distinctive colour linocuts—relief prints cut from linoleum rather than wood—supplemented by a few works in other media. Some of the linocuts were produced in England in the 1920s and ’30s, and others in Campbell River following Andrews’s move there, with her husband Walter Morgan, in 1947. Subject matter reflects both time and place: images created in England include a rowing team lifting a scull, Gypsies hauling bundles of firewood, and an audience within the swelling curve of a concert hall. Those produced in Canada depict logging, fishing, towering cedar trees, and masked First Nations dancers.

      Through all these varied subjects, Andrews reveals her enthusiasm for both the energy of her subject and the adaptability of her medium. Easier and cheaper to produce than woodcuts, linocuts were adopted by early modernists as a supple and supremely democratic medium. They enabled artists to create inexpensive prints that working-class folk could acquire for a pittance. (No longer: some of Andrews’s 1930s prints have sold at auction for over $100,000.)

      Among the colour linocut’s important proponents during the 1920s were English artist Claude Flight and his acolytes at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London. Outstanding among them was Andrews, who found that the medium perfectly suited her expressive intentions. Still, as is evident here, a paradox exists in her absorption of Flight’s teaching along with the vorticist and futurist styles he applied to colour linocuts. Futurism sought to express the speed, movement, and dynamism of contemporary urban life, championing the mechanistic and condemning the traditional. Andrews, however, lived for years in the Suffolk countryside and was deeply committed to expressing its timelessness. So while she produced works that took machines as their subjects—motorcycles in Speedway, a logging truck in Hauling—one of her most affecting prints is The Fall of the Leaf.

      This aerial view of a farmer ploughing a field with a team of three horses reveals an Art Deco feeling for design; the image is largely built out of the concentric ovals of abutting pastures and curving, fan-shaped trees. What this and many of the works in the show convey is that the energy Andrews most admired was life energy—a force that transcends time, place, and the internal combustion engine.




      Mar 8, 2011 at 1:41pm

      Wonderful style, always recognizable and supreme graphism!