The Alton Mill Arts Centre is not the AGO. Here, in its quiet little corner of rural Orangeville, you won’t find the classics, the masters of old, or any of the other clichéd pieces that have been reproduced, forged, copied and otherwise over-represented through the centuries. At Alton Mill, the paintings and sculptures and craftwork displayed are created by the men and women who are still etching their names into our contemporary art scene. Their work is vivid, and alive; it holds the promise of a bright future, and of more work to come.
The Alton Mill Arts Centre is a gallery of career artists, and emerging artists, and artists who are still around to talk about their work.
This is the backdrop against which the reception for Out of the Cage, an exhibition by the Bartlett Gallery, was held on Sunday, March 30th. Visitors were welcomed to this bright, first-floor space at the Mill with a cozy spread of fruits, baked goods and beverages by gallery operators Lynda Clare Grant and Teresa Brownell.
The exhibition: a collection of 25 paintings by Mendelson Joe.
Officially, Joe is recognized as a Canadian artistic multi-talent, social justice advocate and man-on-the-periphery. His work often mocks our nation’s politicians, and reveres its cultural luminaries. Out of the Cage is a collection of new landscape paintings of Northern Ontario, Joe’s social commentary expressing his awe for the beauty and power of nature, and the damage that human encroachment is causing.
“I envy his lifestyle a little bit,” Teresa Brownell of the Bartlett Gallery admitted to me when I arrived. “He lives up in Almaguin, in a cabin, and just paints.”
His work certainly makes an impression, even on me, an admitted armchair-appreciator of art. What struck me about his vision was the way that typical nature scenes were often disrupted by bold streaks of colour (the neon sunset in October Dawn, for instance). It’s harsh, but beautiful. Childlike, but with great insight.
It’s interesting art, and Mendelson Joe is an interesting character. A recluse and eccentric, his work isn’t always about what you’d first think it’s about. I stood back and looked at one nighttime woodland scene, and I thought: “Okay, it’s nice. Good use of muted colours, looks like the woods at night, etc. etc.”
And then I stepped closer and read the comment written by Joe himself …
I laugh even now, because I never would have guessed in a million years that the painting was called Relief from Wayne Gretzky. Joe explains, “Having spent too many days painting my portrait of the pitchman’s pitchman, Wayne Gretzky (Tylenol, The Bay, ESSO, Post Cereal, McDonald’s, Budweiser, Goodyear Tires, Folgers Coffee, CIBC, etc.,) I leapt into this night forest as relief.”
He’s as refreshing in person as he is in his writing and painting—as I learned when he joined the reception by video conference. At one point he said to his audience, “We’ve got about forty-eight inches of snow up here on the planet—I don’t say ‘on the ground’ because it’s a trite, hackneyed expression.”
Though he is eccentric, make no mistake: he’s humble. There is a frankness in his communication, and his political nature is hard to miss. But there is also a distinct humility—an unusual combination, which makes him all the more refreshing. One admirer asked him, “You were talking about songs and paintings. Do you have any songs that have become paintings or paintings that have become songs?” Joe’s response: “Yes—that’s a good question, thank you.” And he tipped his ball cap to her.
It’s that kind of intimacy, that kind of realism (and I don’t mean technique) that gives Joe’s work a depth beyond his self-taught skill. In fact, Joe is the perfect example of what Alton Mill has to offer. The artists behind the work are still working. They’re not dusty relics, names repeated so often they’ve lost all meaning to the general public. They are real people, still creating their art. And if you visit Alton Mill, you will find many of them there, eager to talk about their work with anyone that’s interested.
The Bartlett Gallery at The Alton Mill Arts Centre hosts Out of the Cage this month, with Mendelson Joe’s work available for purchase.