At the Verge Gallery (152 East 8th Avenue) until June 26
A friend saw David Pirrie's paintings in the artist's Strathcona studio last year and tried describing them to me. Pirrie was a mountaineer, like me, and while the pictures of Coast Range peaks he'd climbed showed his firsthand knowledge of each summit, they weren't slavish photo-realistic re-creations. Instead, the pieces owed as much to computer-aided topographic mapping and 3-D rendering software as they did to the summits themselves. "I think you'd really like them," said my friend. Having finally seen them, I do.
Each of Pirrie's paintings scissors a Coast Range summit out of geographical context, placing it against a monochrome backdrop. The jagged peaks' rocky escarpments, alluvial fans, and glacial tongues are rendered with what initially seems to be photographic precision, but which, on closer inspection, is an abstract compression of space, a pushing and pulling of the eye through the scene.
Pirrie's paintings are conceptually up-to-date. They seem more informed by computerized architectural rendering programs or stereographic air photography than by the mountain paintings of artists like Ferdinand Hoedler or Lawren Harris. Pirrie accomplishes this break from historical mountain painting by using very small, lightly flickering brush strokes that drain expressivity out of the pictures, and also by setting the mountains off against geometrical patterns that shift the landscape forms in space, so that they seem to spin in place, like a computer-generated 3-D modelling program's rendition of a landscape.
The artworks' palate is also restrained: mostly blues, greys, browns, and greens; the monochrome backgrounds are greys and beiges, the colours of an overcast autumn sky. The overall effect is of topographic accuracy but of a peculiar, hallucinatory kind. The landforms seem compressed, as if squeezed together by powerful geological or historical forces.
Pirrie has painted other subjects, including car crashes and grotesquely twisted cartoon bodies, but none of these subjects strikes me as being as satisfying as his mountains. They seem overcalculated, designed to please the contemporary art world with familiar subjects and themes. The mountain paintings are informed by, but stand apart from, that world, reporting back on things the art scene couldn't care less about: a lovely knife-edge ridge on Mount Sloan; the steep and scary icefalls that scar Mount Garibaldi's flanks. Pirrie's mountain paintings maintain a respectful distance from the crowd, and this cool, slightly reserved quality is their greatest strength.