Matt Bahen’s landscape paintings draw on climate change


“All gardening is a landscape painting,” William Kent once said. But with climate change, how do we look at a landscape painting differently? Walking into a museum today and looking at paintings of centuries-old landscapes is one way to see how our planet has changed (or how we have destroyed our planet, depending on how you look at it).

canadian artist Matt Bahen recently had a solo exhibition of new paintings at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto, titled The promise, the promise. These large scale oil paintings show how our planet was destroyed. With references to literary masters like TS Eliot and Joseph Campbell, the paintings depict forest fires, muddy waters, floods and barbed wire. It is a sign of our time, or perhaps to come.

Bahen speaks from his Toronto studio about calamity, literary drama and environmental narratives.

So, this new series of paintings is inspired by literary works?

Matt Bahen: Most of the titles are taken from literary works, from TS Eliot to Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. So it is not just about old literature, because it is also nice to find new things.

Some of the landscapes are based in British Columbia, when was the last time you went?

When I was a musician and I toured Canada with a rock band, we got to see the whole country. The last time I was in British Columbia was five years ago. But I don’t tour with the band anymore, The Schomberg Fair. I came home with less money than I had left. Thus, since 2013, I have devoted myself full time to painting.

Did you focus solely on the landscapes of British Columbia, or beyond?

They come from everywhere. These are all landscapes that I know of, but their actual geographic location is not that important. Because I know the landscapes, I hope the viewer will have access to them as well. You’ll notice that there isn’t a lot of tropical scenery or desert scenes, or anything like that.

Canada has a long history of picturesque landscape art, what makes your work different or updated?

What I tried to do was take a generic landscape and put some tension in it, use a square canvas. I didn’t use traditional blue skies either, but gray or white skies. There is a painting called ‘Quick said the bird, find them, find them,‘which represents the Fraser River in British Columbia, which is quite muddy or turbulent. It’s just brown. Some of the paintings are from northern Ontario, which resemble some European landscapes. But the paintings are not autobiographical or journalistic.

Why do some paintings have forest fires?

It’s a strong underlying of what I’m thinking about – in today’s world, how can you look at a landscape painting and not see climate change as a consideration? It’s about how the natural world changes. Climate change is also present in many literary works these days.

How has climate change influenced landscape paintings, in your eyes?

It changed him, for me. It is a delicate thing. If you try to tackle it head on, your work can become didactic, not so open. But if you have it as a tertiary aspect, this vibration can become a cross, a disturbance. Looking at the paintings of the valley, it’s hard not to notice the history of colonization, climate change, the possibility that the forests are on fire.

There is a painting called ‘What could have been or could have been, ‘Why use barbed wire in this room, and the few others that have it?

The barbed wire paintings were the direct result of children in cages. It is not fair. I felt I needed to express this. It is a feeling of calamity. There are also paintings where there is a threshold to cross, a border. Others show a struggle, aftermath, then a sense of belonging, or coming home, where you have been changed. It is a feeling through many paintings. If you think about it, significant events in our lives are usually dealt with through a story that we tell ourselves.


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