Matt Bahen’s landscape paintings tap into climate change


“All gardening is 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 century-old landscape paintings is one way to see how our planet has changed (or how we destroyed our planet, depending on how you look at it).

Canadian artist Matt Bahen recently presented a solo exhibition of new paintings at 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, one to come.

Bahen speaks from his Toronto studio about calamities, literary dramas 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’s not just about old literature, it’s also nice to find new things.

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

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

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

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

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

What I tried to do was take a generic landscape and create tension there, to use a square canvas. I also didn’t use traditional blue skies, but gray or white skies. There is a painting called ‘Quickly 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 neither autobiographical nor journalistic.

Why do some paintings contain forest fires?

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

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

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

There is an array 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’s not true. I felt the need to express it. It’s a feeling of calamity. There are also paintings where there is a threshold that we cross, a border. Others show a struggle, a legacy, and then a sense of belonging, or homecoming, where you are changed. It’s a feeling across many paintings. If you think about it, significant events in our lives are usually processed through a story we tell ourselves.


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