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August 25, 2013

Mary Pratt: On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly.

MARY PRATT Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007. oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm

It is not a huge leap to look at Mary Pratt’s paintings and have thoughts turn to ideas about the containment and preservation of time. Not least of all because of her paintings of preserves, jams and jellies. Or because she shows that jam jars are containers of not only condiments, but also of light. In the essay “A Woman’s Life” by Sarah Milroy, part of the Mary Pratt book, Pratt recalls early inspiration in her mother’s jars of jelly: “Oh they were gorgeous… she would arrange them along the window-ledge–they were west-facing windows with the light coming through–red currant jelly, highbush cranberry jelly, raspberry jelly, blackberry jelly–all as clear as glass.”

In her work, Pratt also includes more prosaic containers, such as tupperware, and ketchup bottles, as well as preservation agents that capture light with a different kind of beauty–tin foil, saran wrap. Underlining this idea of preservation is that Pratt’s paintings themselves have been painted from photographs, that with a camera Pratt has been able to stop time and preserve a moment in the whirl of domesticity–a supper table that will soon be cleared away, for example. In Sarah Fillmore’s essay “Vanitas”, Pratt notes that “The camera was my instrument of liberation. Now that I no longer had to paint on the run, I would pay each gut reaction its proper homage. I could paint anything that appealed to me… I could use the slide to establish the drawing and concentrate on the light, and the content and the symbolism.”

Whilst reading the Mary Pratt book, which has been created to complement the exhibition of Pratt’s work that will be moving across the country in the coming months, I kept drawing parallels between her work and the womanly art of blogging. This precludes any arguments about amateurism of course, however much some may insist that “blogger” and “amateur” are in fact synonyms. Because Pratt is no amateur, and neither are the bloggers who make art of the form, who craft their posts themselves in order to “pay each gut reaction its proper homage.”

“…it comes from a longing to hold truth in your hands, to feel something of your own existence–a longing to feel alive… The painting of the jelly jar is really about the way that light shines through the glass, the way that light is preserved, like jelly, for all time.” -Sarah Fillmore, “Vanitas”

MARY PRATT Supper Table (detail) 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

MARY PRATT Supper Table 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

Pratt captures the domestic, the seemingly mundane. And yet behind her rich but also simple and familiar images lie deeper stories. Her painting “Kitchen Table”, the first she created from a photograph in 1969, is at first a quiet scene, a table at once empty and yet crowded with the remains of a meal–a ketchup bottle with its cap off, a hotdog left uneaten, crumbs on a plate, drinking glasses in varying states of emptiness (or fullness, perhaps?). And yet, as Catherine M. Mastin points out in her essay “Base, Place, Location and the Early Paintings”, “Pratt’s postwar-era family table is a site of constant labour, meal after meal–which all fell to Mary, with no foreseeable end.” On a more personal note, Pratt’s “Eggs in an Egg Crate” was the first work she completed after the deaths of her infant twins, a painting whose symbolism wasn’t clear to her until somebody else had pointed it out–that the eggs in the carton were empty.

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

For all their luminosity and the domestic focus, Pratt’s paintings are also wonderfully subversive. Her eggs are usually broken, is what I mean, the cake half-eaten and cut with a big sharp knife, the bananas in the fruit bowl are just a little too ripe. The meat in her “Roast Beef” is a charred hunk (and Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay, “I can remember when I first showed it in a gallery [and] I heard a woman say, ‘Well, I guess she can paint, but do you think she can cook?'”). Milroy is correct that “In this day of highly stylized food photography…, Mary Pratt’s work seems ahead of the curve,” and yet Pratt’s food paintings are always just a little “off”–the leftovers from a supper of hotdogs, for example, or the casserole dish in the microwave. This is food that people eat, instead of a lacquered sandwich intended for a magazine cover. Hers is a messy, imperfect domestic scene, and yet there is beauty in these scenes that are captured precisely as they are.

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

Her images of meat and animal carcasses suggest something basic and bodily about domestic life, a suggestion echoed vaguely in the images of her model “Donna”. “That’s what women do,” Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay. “They wrap things up, or unwrap them, or cut them open, or chop them, ready for the oven.” Fish are also a recurring image in her work, not surprising considering she’s based in Atlantic Canada, but here is the rarely seen flip-side of maritime life–“Salmon on Saran”, “Trout in a Ziploc Bag” or “Fish Head in Steel Sink”. They don’t write shanties about this kind of sea. And then there  is the fire, Pratt’s burning dishcloth on her “Dishcloth on Line” paintings. That same agent used to wipe down the table of dinner-after-dinner is annihilated into a glorious flame which captures the light as intriguingly (and eternally, now that Pratt has preserved the image) as do the far more innocuous jars of jam on the window sill.

Whoever thought the kitchen was a scene of mundanity probably wasn’t looking…

In her essay “Look Here”, Mireille Eagan writes that “Ultimately, [Pratt] asks the viewer to see; she tells us: “Look, here.” Which is what the very best bloggers do too, instead of “Look at me!” using their blogs to implore their readers to, “Look at this!” The result of this being the “sideways autobiography” that Eagan refers to of Pratt’s work. There is no over-arching narrative here, and instead we come to understand the depth of these writers’ lives from the objects, moments and stories they choose to include in their blogs, each individual post its own still-life. Like Pratt, these bloggers are curating their lives, crafting something permanent out of the whirl of the ephemeral. As Eagan writes of Pratt: “Her images reveal a pattern of privacies, of things half-visible, half-said–but articulated, nonetheless. They represent a lifetime of looking closely, an intimation of the buzzing pause before one turns and continues.”

Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

MARY PRATT Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

Mary Pratt is available from Goose Lane Editions. Read more about this stunning book here.

7 thoughts on “Mary Pratt: On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time”

  1. m says:

    Oh, I love this. Every last word and image. Thank you.

  2. Jo says:

    Very nice post indeed! I love reading your blog.

  3. Melwyk says:

    What a beautiful post! And book — I really want it now — I love Mary Pratt. Especially those jam jars… So interested to read about her use of domesticity.

  4. Carrie says:

    Thank you for this post! I love your thoughts on blogging, and I love finding out more about Mary Pratt. Those jam jars. Unwrapping and wrapping, opening up, chopping up, preparing, cleaning up — my life — and not mundane. Must get this book!

  5. Susan says:

    Thank you for this. It really struck a chord for me, and was perfectly timed with some internal thinking/wondering I’ve been doing about woman-blogs. You’ve pulled some truth out of the weave, clarified what i love about reading and soing this work, cheers. Now I have to go see the Mary Pratt exhibit …

  6. I love the egg carton one and the supper table one. And yes, her study of light is wonderful. Admittedly, I’m much more a fan of Christopher Pratt, her ex-husband, but I’m hoping to see her stuff at the McMichael soon!

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