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In photos: A look at a modern plein-air painting tradition

Plein-air painting – going outdoors with easel, paint tubes, palette and brushes to capture the fleeting effects of light on land, water, clouds – was a staple of landscape art in the 19th and early 20th centu ries. Think Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park, Claude Monet at Giverny and on the banks of the Thames, Renoir at his farm near the Mediterranean coast. But is there a contemporary plein-air tradition or at least practice? Kitty Scott thinks there is. Currently curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, she’s mounted three exhibitions on the phenomenon in the last five years, the newest iteration, called Pleinarism, up now at Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre and running though mid-September. As with the previous incarnations (in Iceland in 2008, Quebec in 2012), Scott has brought together works in various media by international artists or teams of artists not usually associated with en plein air. There’s also a display of research materials from a plein-air drawing residency held at the centre last summer plus a trio of mountain watercolours from the 1930s by the gallery’s namesake, purportedly the first time Phillips (1884-1963) has been so recognized since the gallery opened in 1976. While some of the work is observational, there’s also – unsurprisingly in this day and age – a conceptual cast to a few of the entries. Watercolor, for instance, a short video from 2010 by Belgian-born Francis Alys, depicts the artist taking a bucket of water from the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan, then dumping the contents into the Black Sea at Trabzon, Turkey.

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Drawing a Tiger, a 1971 dyptich by Icelandic conceptualist Hreinn Fridfinnsson. The left photograph shows the artist as a youngster making art outdoors, the right of Fridfinnsson as a 28-year-old doing same. There are, of course, no tigers in Iceland.

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A still from the 1983 film The Right Way by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss (who died in 2012). Described as a “classic art-world philosophic comedy,” it’s the second film to feature the adventures of the characters Bear and Rat. Before ascending a mountain to watch a beautiful sunset, “they befriend a pig, which they later eat, and help an overturned tortoise go on its way.”

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Summer in Iceland: Interdisciplinary artist Ragnar Kjartansson on the outskirts of Reykjavik in 2011 at 3 a.m., capturing in paint on canvas the play of the shiny night sun on the landscape.


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An exterior view of the studio, called Squish, that Norwegian artist Andreas Siqueland occupied (and modified) in 2012 on Fogo Island, the largest offshore land-mass in Newfoundland and Labrador. Designed by Todd Saunders, the studio is one of four such artist residences on the island, bankrolled by arts patron Zita Cobb.

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