An air of mystery enveloped the images in Karin Bubaš’s exhibition “Colour Field,” which appeared at Monte Clark Gallery in Vancouver this past summer. The large archival-pigment prints and small-scale oil paintings in the artist’s newest series are extensions of her earlier Studies in Landscapes and Wardrobe (2006–ongoing), in which elegantly costumed women face away from the camera as they gaze out at bucolic landscape settings. Inspired in part by the films of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni, those images also evoke the sublime quality of 19th-century landscape painting.
In the new work, Bubaš continues to photograph pristinely beautiful Vancouver-area landscapes, but now replaces her human characters with strange billows of coloured smoke that stain the air and land. The pinks, blues and yellows that overlay green growth and white snow are the result of smoke bombs that Bubaš detonates on-site. Unexpected and incongruous, the coloured wisps suggest a spiritual or otherworldly dimension. Could the purple haze of smoke seen in Forest Floor and Cobalt Violet Light Hue (2011), for example, be the aura of someone who has disappeared? It takes a minute to realize that the more minimal Cloud in Cobalt Turquoise Light Tint (2011) depicts snow-covered terrain; blue smoke helps to draw our attention to blades of grass emerging from the frost. In Purple Haze (2011), the smoke bleeds into the white of the snow, recalling an abstract stain painting.
Since the invention of the camera obscura, the relationship between photography and painting has been complex. Early photographers mimicked painting’s pictorial effects, then realized that the medium could capture and document moments in time; more recently, photographers have questioned the veracity of the image by fabricating and staging their pictures. In “Colour Field,” Bubaš moves easily back and forth between painting and photography. Her tiny oil paintings are based on photographs shot in the same woodland locales. The intricacy and small scale of these meticulously painted panels renders them icon-like; they seem like devotional objects of remembrance for sites and places.
There is an irony in the “Colour Field” works: the paintings’ detail and high-gloss varnish can make them look more photographic than the photos—especially those that resemble abstract paintings. This confusion is enhanced by scale, as the photos assume the grand formats of historic landscape paintings. Ultimately, Bubaš’s real subject is cultural definitions of beauty, the sublime, spirituality and the relationship between photography and painting.
This is a review from the Winter 2012 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.