At Winsor Gallery until September 5
A Brian Howell exhibition is guaranteed to compel the eye and the mind. With a background in photojournalism and editorial photography, this award-winning artist has created a number of independent projects, focusing his medium-format camera on celebrity impersonators, minor-league wrestlers, and the debris-laden carts of binners. He has also created a series of highly detailed colour photos of the unpopulated interiors of newspaper printing plants—a tribute to the endangered business of print journalism.
Howell’s latest series of works, “Burn”, consists of snowy winter landscapes shot in a fire-ravaged forest in the Thompson River region of British Columbia. Although these images initially appear to be a departure from his earlier, somewhat marginalized human subjects, they still function as a vehicle for his acute social observations.
Burnt Forests, Howell’s small show at Winsor Gallery, consists of six large colour photographs, although on first glance, they appear to be studies in black and white.
Shot mostly from high, distant, horizon-excluding vantage points, the wintry mountain landscapes resemble austere abstractions: the upwardly tapering vertical “strokes” created by the burned tree trunks are countered by the horizontal and diagonal lines of their fallen brethren. Burned and broken stumps appear as shorter jots and flecks of black, and occasional rocky outcroppings, as seen in Burn (#23), may create a scalloped black line across the composition.
From a distance, these pictures of the charred remains of a forest seen against the blanketing white of fresh snow could have been rendered in India ink on a blank piece of Arches paper. (In this sense, they’re a little reminiscent of Ann Kipling’s landscape drawings. They also call up aspects of abstract expressionism and Automatism, and Gordon Smith’s highly graphic winter landscapes.)
Up close, however, delicately etched details and subtle washes of colour emerge. Dead branches take the form of spidery webs of pale grey and low bushes of new growth are articulated in raw sienna or burnt (yes, burnt) umber.
In Burn (#19), a small river, dark and poetic against the snow, winds diagonally upward from the bottom of the frame, disappears briefly, then reappears in what might be the middle ground—if Howell’s lens had not so dramatically flattened the perspective.
In Burn (#17), a group of deer, miniaturized by their distance from the camera, establish a barely discernible presence at the lower left of the picture. They are a tiny, poignant reminder of the creatures that make their home in what was previously a life-giving forest. They also cue us to the metaphoric heart behind Howell’s formal and documentary impulses.
It’s no accident that he is exhibiting these photographs during a summer of disastrous drought and record-breaking wildfires in western Canada and the United States. These austerely beautiful images ask us to think about human-driven climate change, a subject that our political leaders, save one, seem determined to ignore. Howell challenges their fearful complacency—and ours.