by Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER – Distinguished by thick evergreens surrounding a lake and powdered mountain, Levine Flexhaug’s landscape paintings could be found at resorts and national parks between Manitoba and British Columbia from the late 1930s to the 1960s. It’s a scene that the Saskatchewan-born artist replicated an infinite number of times as he spent summers travelling through Western Canada selling his work, often living out of his car as he rambled the road. And while showing essentially the same vista, his paintings always differed in detail: an extra peak; a cascading waterfall. A cabin nestled in the woods. The silhouette of a moose.
Flexhaug’s landscapes brought a kind of warmth into people’s homes during a time that it was greatly needed. “He was selling to people who had gone through the hardships of the Depression and were living on the prairies where there are no trees in many places — particularly in the southern part of the prairies, where he came from, there are no mountains,” explains Peter White, co-curator of A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug, an exhibition of Flexhaug’s work now showing at the Contemporary Art Gallery. “This would have been very refreshing. It’s the perfect, ideal image, almost like a paradise or sanctuary.”
A Sublime Vernacular is the first all-encompassing overview of Flexhaug. This isn’t surprising, White says, because his images tend to be regarded as kitschy, which is generally looked down upon from a high culture perspective — even though Flexhaug’s landscapes are not manipulated in the way the genre is known to be. Works like Flexhaug’s, that hail from a rural background with nostalgic subject matter, present a challenge to institutionalized thinking.
“That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do the show,” White says. “To take this material which we believe has great value — it’s not that it has more value or less value than anything else, but it has a lot of value and it’s an important cultural achievement — and to put it in these places where that’s kind of questioned.”
With the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie as the organizing institution, White and fellow curator Nancy Tousley sourced over 450 paintings through dealers, collectors, and members of Flexhaug’s family to bring the artist deserved recognition and shed light on who he was. It’s been about seven years since the project commenced. “We also felt that there’s something in this work that’s very compelling,” adds White. “And a part of it is its capacity to compel you in a bit of an obsessive way. It’s sort of the opposite of less is more. More is always more.”
The staples of Flexhaug’s unspoiled landscapes — snowy mountains, an abundance of trees, a water body — feel definitively Canadian. But Flexhaug didn’t base his work on a specific location. It was simply an ideal that he dreamed up. “It’s a distillation using the constituent elements of romantic landscape painting sort of massaged into his sense of things and what he thought his customers would want,” White explains. The image’s denotation as a symbol of national iconography speaks to a collective consciousness in how we, as Canadians, seem to identify ourselves with landscape. “I think it’s a trope in our culture,” White considers. “It’s reassuring, it’s a peaceful image. I think that’s why people respond to it.”
Even though Flexhaug was a commercial artist, the intention behind his landscapes, paired with the fact that he also gave many away as gifts, displays an engagement and benevolence that is intrinsic to the integrity of his work. “I think it’s not that Flexhaug had some passionate attachment to natural beauty and the land,” White says, “and that doesn’t lessen the authenticity of them because, again, it has to do with the whole nature of…how he interacted with his customers. He was giving them something that they wanted and that was partly the nature of what was authentic and meaningful in what he did.”
With A Sublime Vernacular, Flexhaug is no longer a best-kept secret. He is now entered into the catalogues of art history and the exhibition marks a significant change in how he’ll be understood. His work, beyond being a colourful feast for the eye and soothe for the soul, provides fascinating insight into a specific chapter of Canada’s story. Work, White says, that is really remarkable as a prism through which to look at social and cultural history of the West and of the Prairies.
A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug runs until September 24th at the Contemporary Art Gallery.A Sublime Vernacular, British Columbia, fine art, Levine Flexhaug, Manitoba, Saskatchewan