Rita Letendre – Chasing Vibrato

by Alice Plummer

Yatar, 1979 serigraph on wove paper From the collection of the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery Generous gift of Glen Baillie

Rita Letendre – Chasing Vibrato

Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery, Sarnia

March 1 – April 1, 2019

Walking into the Rita Letendre exhibit, Chasing Vibrato, at the stylish and modern Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery, I was surrounded by delicate and intricate chords of instrumental music playing through unseen speakers; a copasetic touch which fits both the title and theme of this exhibition. This was, evidently, similar music to that which Letendre listened while creating her paintings. Letendre’s paintings thus become portraits, not only of her state of being but also of the music mediated through her perception and then evoked visually as layers of colour and form. The horizontal planes of colour throughout the works create a visual rhythm for the viewer. The six paintings displayed present a substantial overview of Letendre’s significant professional career as a Canadian indigenous painter. These paintings reveal Letendre’s evolution as a follower of the Plasticien art movement and reveal how influential Abstract Expressionism was to her art.

Letendre attended and then eventually left Montreal’s École des Beaux Arts in her 20s to work with the painting group, the Automatistes who were based in Quebec and who were highly influenced by the Abstract Expressionists. The Automatistes believed that painting should convey automatic emotional expression. After leaving the Automatistes, who themselves disbanded in 1960, Letendre and other young artists opened their own co-operative gallery and were known as the Plasticiens who believed in a more calculated approach to composition. Letendre’s work continued to be intensely emotional and dynamic. Interestingly, she expresses this in works that are not particularly gestural or spontaneous in their composition, but highly structured with a strong linear sensibility.

Silent Echo II, 1968 serigraph on wove paper From the collection of Museum London Generous gift of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Moore, through the Ontario Heritage Foundation

In 1965 Letendre was commissioned to do her first mural. In her prior works she had created a sense of vibration through her thick usage of impasto. Not being able to use impasto on a work of this scale, Letendre preferred to incorporate a dynamic usage of lines, or ‘arrows’ as she called them, to create an optical vibration. Referring to these dynamic lines as arrows seems apt as they contain both a sense of direction and speed. In Silent Echo II – a painting of medium size – diagonal lines collide with another line or arrow as if emulating the crescendo of a song. It was also observed that two of the arrows appear to move at a faster speed than the other arrow. This sense of movement exists on a two-dimensional plane with the background consisting of the colours black and brown. This composition creates a heavy and flat effect due to the unmodulated, opaque areas of colour. Because of the two-dimensional quality of the composition, everything appears to be happening on the surface of the work.

Ojibanda, 1976 oil on canvas From the collection of Museum London Gift in honour of Michael and Doreen Mason, Dirk and Sietske Vermeulen, and Jack Israeli and Bianca Israeli

In Ojibanda, the scale of the painting is immense and reflective of the murals that Letendre created. In this work, the tension in the relationship between the opaque, delineated forms and the atmospheric, ambient areas of colour is brought into focus. This work is bisected by an exceedingly long arrow that dilates as it moves across the canvas. This creates a sense of speed; the eye is immediately drawn to the arrow which appears to vibrate with an incredible sense of movement. The size of this work allows the arrow to be seen and experienced in its horizontal axis for a longer amount of time than her other, smaller paintings. It is because of this that the arrow becomes an entity in its own right and has a greater visual impact on the viewer. Browns, whites and grays permeate the painting yet a soft and brilliant lilac hovers like an aura above and beneath the arrow. Strong contrasts exist in Letendre’s work between what is clearly depicted and what is unformed and yet these states exist within each other; each helping to form and define its ‘opposing’ state. This could be understood as a metaphor for reality; a reality that consists of physical objects juxtaposed against the metaphysical or spiritual reality which is not necessarily confined to any consistent form. These realities of the formless and the tangible exist within the midst of each other, creating an interesting and symbiotic dynamic that challenges the binary aspect of perceiving and understanding reality. We see that nothing truly exists separate from anything else; that apparent differences are only different facets of something greater than what we ordinarily perceive.

Song, 1984 pastel on wove paper From the collection of the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery Generous gift of Jens R. Thielsen

In Song, a much smaller work, a distinct transition is seen from Letendre’s earlier works. Colours throughout the painting have become increasingly warm and vivid and the rigid, straight arrow has dissipated into a diffused horizon line. Vibrant hues of magenta, orange, red and yellow become more prominent. Most significantly, the composition does not exist solely on the surface but portrays an environment which the viewer can now enter. The environment is an inviting space unlike Letendre’s earlier works in which there is no environment to enter; only an inaccessible surface or space. The strata of colours in Song, like a horizon during twilight, seems to symbolize life in the midst of transition. That horizon could be dawn or dusk as both states represent the merging of two opposing states into one simultaneously occurring state. A dark purplish brown forms a mysterious storm-like cloud within the sky of this horizon. It exists directly over the horizon line. It is also the only form in which gestural brushstrokes can be seen in any of this exhibition’s paintings, adding a defined sense of intense emotion within the darkness of the cloud. Underneath the horizon lies a thin but distinguishable ground. Letendre has no pre-conceived ideas regarding her works before she begins painting, and each layer of colour seems to capture a specific and perhaps fleeting thought or feeling, depicting it in a visual form. She is present in the moment as she paints, listening to the rise and fall of the music that surrounds her and conveying the waves of emotion at play inside her.

Zen philosophy is an interest of Letendre’s and this is reflected especially in her later works. In Zen philosophy the artist needs to be one with the tools they use and the forms they create as it is believed that only through complete unity can original creation occur. Within Zen Buddhist philosophy there is also an understanding that there is no beginning and no end to various aspects of existence. The composition, space, forms and areas of colour in Letendre’s paintings do not appear to begin or end within the frame, quite easily continuing forever beyond its boundaries. The painting is only capturing a fragment of the experience of the environment. There is a sense that there is more to what is being shown; that it doesn’t begin or end with what you see.

Pulse of the Day, 1983 acrylic on canvas From the collection of the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery Generous gift of Ron and Tabita Moore and The Moore Gallery

Throughout Letendre’s work, the planes of colour seem to be either separating from each other or coalescing into each other. The distance between one amorphous stratum of colour and another vibrates as they pull and push against each other. This is evident in these later works, including Pulse of the Day. Adhering to Zen principles, these works appear to not only be more inviting to the viewer, but also invite the viewer into a meditative state. Letendre’s work is reminiscent of Mark Rothko, an Abstract Expressionist who created paintings to be meditated upon using abstracted planes of colour. The works of Letendre, like Rothko’s, have a religiosity to them, not in that they promote worship of a deity but rather because they encourage an internal, mystical exploration towards something beyond the self.

One departs this exhibition with a strong overall sense of time and transience. This is due to Letendre’s focus on the experience of the present moment and, inherently, the fleeting nature of that moment. Existence becomes various moments that collude into an overall experience within a particular state of being. The horizons in Letendre’s works present us with moments of merging transition when the day and night bleed into each other.

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