At the West Vancouver Museum until May 21
Sylvia Tait’s abstract paintings are so filled with luscious colour and vibrant brushwork that it’s easy to read them as paeans to life and the sensuous possibilities of her medium. There is, however, a dark undercurrent here, with certain sombre hues, bloody gashes, and ominous forms suggesting not just modernist angst but also personal anguish. Tait has suffered cruel losses, and they shade and shape her otherwise exuberant artworks. The angular modernist music playing in the exhibition space, composed by Tait’s friends and colleagues, also contributes to the sense that more is going on here than joie de vivre.
Curated by the West Vancouver Museum’s Darrin Morrison, Sylvia Tait: A Classical Spirit is a mini-retrospective of one of the West Coast’s most important—and seriously overlooked—abstractionists. Because the museum is small, the show is a précis rather than a survey of Tait’s career, from her early years in Montreal in the 1950s through time spent in Spain and Mexico, to her move to Vancouver in 1968 and the development of her art here over the subsequent fertile decades. A couple of significant works, including 2009’s Glissando, speak to her ongoing appreciation of music as the most abstract of creative expressions.
A highlight of the show is Tait’s shift, in the early 1960s, from still lifes and figuration to a distinctive biomorphic abstraction. In his curatorial essay, Morrison suggests that a few oil-on-canvas works, such as Proclamation and Moon Mine, on view in the first gallery, are pivotal to Tait’s development as an abstract painter. Produced in the mid 1960s, they respond to important political and technological changes in the world, from feminism to the space race. Formally, they appear to have their roots in surrealism, abstract expressionism, and art brut; at the same time, they demonstrate the emergence of forms and motifs that became Tait’s own, including large ovoids, concentricities, and strands of partitioned colour. Those strands, particularly, wind their way through many styles and decades, and suggest not only painterly pathways through the world but also particles and strings of energy, of life force, with analogies to both physics and metaphysics.
A significant transitional work, Kitchen Fabularium, dated 1963, is a highly abstracted still life whose table top, tilted up so that it is flat against the picture plane, is a large, lopsided oval. That oval recurs in Tait’s later abstractions as a form that can signify many things, from primordial egg to spaceship. In Proclamation, which addresses female procreativity and sexuality, the fleshy pink forms can be both breast and uterus, dropping bubbles of colour and new life—along with needlelike shards of angst—into the surrounding darkness.
A surprise to West Coast viewers is a series of lively, Picasso-esque pen-and-ink drawings executed in Montreal in the 1950s. With ease and delight, they depict the creative community of artists, composers, and writers to which Tait and her late husband, poet and painter Eldon Grier, belonged. More familiar, through local exhibitions at the Bau-Xi Gallery, are Tait’s gorgeous abstractions of the past few decades, in which biomorphs give way to soft-edged squares, rectangles, and other organically treated geometric forms, and thick impasto becomes more subtly and sensuously modulated.
In Canada, despite the gains of feminism during the 1970s, a number of modernist female artists have fallen off the critical and art-historical register. Tait is an outstanding example of this oversight. Still, small though this new show of her paintings and drawings may be, it is a thoughtful tribute to her career. It also sends an important signal to other institutions that a big and comprehensive retrospective is long overdue for this spirited and enduring artist.