Hand and Eye: Frances Cockburn's New Paintings

Tenya Mastoras
Jun 3, 2016 6:42PM

By John Terpstra
October 2012

How do you feel where you are? This is the question that popped into my head after I’d spent some time travelling through the city, often at night or in the rain, and into the country, in Frances Cockburn’s new paintings. 

One of those city scenes is repeated, and so the question rephrased itself. How do you feel where you are, now? 

Both are perhaps strange questions. Not, how do you feel about where you are, but rather, how do you feel the place itself. Feel, as in both emotion and touch. Place, as in the specific corner of Bloor and Albany, and a country pond somewhere. Place as the made and natural geography both, and the people who move through them like shadows, going home. Place in season, and time; in the scene depicted and the vantage point from which it is viewed. 

Place as what you don’t see. The longer they are viewed, the more these paintings open into some very generous interior landscapes for the viewer. What does it mean to you to be here now? You, standing in this gallery, looking at this canvas. 

Canvas? These paintings are performed not on that time-hallowed and metaphorheavy material, but on 1/8” and ¼” thick birch or maple plywood. This is a material I understand, though in an entirely different fashion, as a woodworker. And as someone who spends much time in a shop, I understand these paintings as made things; the product of hand and eye. This is the work that Cockburn does while I am doing mine. For both of us, the plywood is a background material: a drawer bottom, a painting surface. My art, if such it is, is in what I do with the cherry or oak or maple that surrounds, and hides, the plywood; the wood-stock of the piece of furniture itself. 

Her art is in the paint that is applied to and hides, in colour and texture and shape, the thin skin of birch or maple. Her art is also in not hiding the thin skin. A number of the paintings allow the white gesso ground to show through. Sometimes the pale brown of the ply itself is visible. Ground comes to the fore. We see (again) that the painting is a made-thing. Pull back those colours and shapes before you, and there is a wall. What is made could be unmade, or never made. What you see could be unseen; what you see is not all there is to see. There is an honesty in this purposeful, serendipitous incompleteness, one that leaves the artist somewhat vulnerable. 

Nothing is ever finished, only abandoned. Whether their ground is exposed or not, these works are pulled out of the event of painting itself, an event that we are now engaged in. The event is ongoing for the artist, but elsewhere, on other surfaces. It will appear as the paintings we will see next year, or the year after. If these paintings represent her current abandoned ones, then we are happy Cockburn left them behind for us to find. It will help us follow the trail. 

The trail this time round is lit by the incendiary orange of Bloor Street, and the yellow that explodes the bottom corner of Crossing Bathurst. In the city paintings especially, these vivid colours, some of which seem at the same time mysteriously muted, stand in contrast to the darkness of the night or the grayness of the rainy day, yet they remain firmly within the palette of the painting as a whole. And they are visually liberating. There is something particularly Ontario, perhaps even southwestern Ontario, about this. The colours and tones, the shapes and patterns, resonate in a way that feels very close to home. 

And I thought that I may have found a marker on the trail, in a certain red that shows up in unexpected places. It’s present in the landscapes and the urban paintings. It is here in Swamp, Osprey Sideroad, and in Going Home. It’s in the reflective shadow that spreads below the car tire in Bloor Street. It’s above the houses in Lynn’s View; on the shoulder of Road. It’s a binding colour, the red of shale, the red/brown of dried blood; it’s the colour of the local earth, the clay of our own shaping, and the wine that runs through our bodies. 

How do you make a feeling? How do you create a visual place for the feeling that you’re making? How do you locate colour and form? 

Frances Cockburn’s paintings are hand and eye alive and in motion, the work of an artist who is truly of the world that surrounds her.

Tenya Mastoras