Written by Norman Zepp

Images of the Booklet Still Scapes

I have come to the conclusion that it is better to have two colours in right relation to each other than to have vast confusion of emotional exuberance in the guise of ecstatic fullness or poetical revelation… I had rather be intellectually right than emotionally exuberant.

Marsden Hartley 1


The tension between the intellectual and the emotional described by Hartley applies directly to the art of Lorenzo Dupuis. Unlike Hartley however, Dupuis resists establishing the priority of one element over the other. For him, the creative process depends on coming to terms with seemingly opposed and competing needs, impulses, and attitudes. The pendulum must always swing freely. There are no easy answers, and compromises are hard won. Like the man, his art is sensual with an aggressive physicality. It is also intelligent and sensitive. It is above all about free expression and the need to express:

Communicating intensity of feeling is my primary goal. To do this, I allow myself the freedom to exaggerate, change and exclude forms that I see. I understand visual perception to be dependent upon relationships where the experience of an element or area is affected by an accompanying experience of a different element. I attempt to work with this understanding in communicating intensity of feeling. 2

The magnitude of this highly expressionistic urge, present in Dupuis' work, sets him apart from many prairie landscapists who, with varying degrees of realism, portray the effects of light on water, reflections, distance, cloudy skies, or approaching storms. Dupuis' response to the overwhelming light and space, the sweep of the land, the water, is not a literal rendering of what he sees, but what he feels, and with this feeling comes strength and conviction:

The feelings that I have toward nature and the excitement and passion that I experience while I am in the act of painting are central to my work. The more that work in nature, the more intense my feelings become. The intensity of my feeling is my strongest asset as a painter.

While there is little doubt as to the reach of the feelings and sensations that the landscape evokes, this does not mean that nature itself is Dupuis' final subject. "In landscape, there are all kinds of places to hide." he has said. Indeed, it is apparent that once painting begins, subject matter itself becomes secondary and Dupuis the abstractionist emerges:

I am a typical modernist. I do not feel that subject -matter is important, although there must be some connection. I want feeling or meaning to be there, but I do not mean in a literal way. What communicates feeling is the formal elements, in particular, the polarity of things: passive/active: cool/warm; heavy/light which sets up visual dynamics.

Dupuis' painting is charged by the tension that antithesis provides. As he explores the nature of subject contrasted with the dicta of formalism, he negotiates between illustration and abstraction, description and autonomous sensate form, the optical and the conceptual. The result, when successful, is a duality expressed by Clement Greenberg as "…descriptive painterliness that is applied to abstract ends, but which continues to suggest representational ones." 3

Others also maintain that there need not he a contradiction between abstraction and realism. Hans Hoffman, for instance, held the theory that abstract art had its origins in nature, "[Abstract art] …reflects the belief in the duality of the world of art and the world of appearances…"4 Hofmann sees the artist at some point between nature and creativity with the artist first responding to the physical matter of nature. Then, through empathy, vision and use of a particular medium of expression, creates a new reality which is art.

Once engaged in the act of applying paint to canvas, Dupuis quickly demonstrates an intuitive awareness of this expressive potential of form itself, of colour, line, and vertical and horizontal tension. Clement Greenberg referred to such elements of abstraction as "... vehicles of feeling. And if these paintings fail as vehicles and expressions of feeling, they fail entirely". 6

Dupuis' work often has a pervasive quality that goes beyond emotion and contemplation to the realm of the spiritual. In these works, formalist imperatives are married to emotional responses to the land, providing the catalyst for thoughts, notions, and instincts based on a deeper spiritual need; one which the artist feels it is imperative to express. Thus, the very success of a work, its edge and vitality requires spiritual energy which is itself dependent on a level of enthusiasm that reflects total dedication and commitment. Dupuis regards this intensity to be necessarily spiritual:

Enthusiasm stems from the Greek "entheo" which means with God, although it may not be characterized by stillness and the sense of contemplation usually associated with piety and reverence. When I look at Van Gogh's painting, I feel immense enthusiasm, which gives me a sense of God.

For Dupuis, a follower of the Baha'i faith, much of reality is imbued with the potential for transcendence. Here, a comparison with the work of Otto Rogers, an artist whom Dupuis much admires, is instructive. Rogers seems to see landscape as a means, a provocation to a deep spiritual vision: light, vast spaces of land and sky, provide a gateway to a spiritual experience for which Rogers attempts to find a parallel in abstract forms. Dupuis, also, sees the transcendant quality of prairie landscape, but his paintings, richly infused as they are with a spiritual vision maintain closer reference to the actual scene than do those of Rogers.

In the final analysis, Dupuis' artistic goal is ultimately beyond that of observable subject-matter. In a review of the work of Otto Rogers, Nancy Tousley writes that Klee, Mondrian and Lawren Harris... "All have been inspired by the desire to transcend the visible".7 The result, which applies to the work of Dupuis, has been referred to as spiritual abstraction.

Dupuis' striving for equilibrium between intellect and intuition, control and spontaneity is in dear evidence in his landscapes. Even very large works are executed "en plein air" in the surprisingly short period of only one or two hours. Typically, Dupuis drives to a spot on the prairie and uses the back of his truck to provide the support bit his canvas. It is extraordinary to watch him apply paint at one moment with energy and verve, the next with care and deliberation. How then does he achieve intellectual authority along with emotive exuberance?

The first part is preparation and method. Before beginning a painting, Dupuis applies varying amounts of oil paint to a large shallow box with a hinged cover which acts as a palette. The actual amount of each colour is dependent on the overall hue intended. After a preponderance of either blue or green, the introduction of yellow in late 1998 was a breakthrough of sorts. In his latest works, a graphite underdrawing, only loosely reflective of the scene before him, provides structure to the fore/middle ground. The subsequent application of paint utilizing parallel hatching is in part controlled by this graphic element. Mineral spirits are on hand to thin the paint to allow the application of broad washes, particularly for the sky. A feature which differentiates his latest works is the fact that they are completed in the studio. This allows for a degree of contemplation and reassessment not possible with those works which are finished solely outdoors.

The second part of the answer is that Dupuis' painting normally runs in groups or series. These "periods" are indeed lengthy bouts of learning, experimentation and expression. Relationships between each successive work reveal that he is working systemically; that is, each successive painting is predicated on, and is an extension of, the last. The image is not so much represented as subjected to continuous transformations and reconstruction. This is so even though the subject may change (river, lake, field). Regarding the systemic approach, Lawrence Alloway writes: "Here form becomes meaningful not because of ingenuity or surprise, but because of repetition and extension".8 Dupuis has stated that he needs the physicality of painting, the push pull of the paint, at times, the gestural action of large brush strokes. Working in series allows for intuitive action without sacrificing control, because so much is already known.

To consider Dupuis' painting in more practical terms, it can be seen that for much of the 1990's, his work has been largely characterized by features associated with what Greenberg calls painterly abstraction: loose, rapid handling of paint; distinct, application marks (brush strokes); conspicuous rhythms, uneven saturation and densities of colour; and, blotted and fused masses with indistinct edges. Typically strong marks of the brush impart a texture which shuts down colour space, the sense of openness, by emphasizing surface. Small areas of colour variation further preclude openness, because a dominant hue over a wide area is required for this effect.

Works such as Moon Volley - Shades of Night from the fall of 1998, retain much of the density and compactness, contrasts of light and dark, and thick tactile paint common to much of dial of the 1990's. These later works however, are, transitional. Dupuis' painting has again shifted, a stream has been crossed. "I have always suspected what comes too easily. Before, I tried desperate acts to impress, to do exciting art. I always felt that I had to be true to the 60's maxim of 'truth to paint and surface". Now I do not feel as though I am fighting the medium."

With Moon Valley -. Quiet Day. Dupuis has moved away from the painterly towards colour field. "I've eliminated the fractured part, using tonal shifts and simple colour to express what I experience painting out of doors; the landscape unfolding, a sense of space, but more so, distance." A sense of openness and clarity is accompanied by a shift in palette away from the deep blues and greens to an intense golden yellow. In these new landscapes large areas of pure hue of similar value is the dominant feature as opposed to small colour "patches". The works are more structured and controlled. Expression has given way to contemplation, passion is tempered by intellect.

Along with this adjustment, came a return to still life. It is interesting to see that the change of subject matter did not alter in any fundamental way Dupuis' method or attitude. Rather, as he said, "I was reintroduced to the language of painting… Sometimes you need to find a new container, the content remains the same."

When one looks at the earliest of the still life series, one cannot but be struck by how related they are to the landscapes. The flower arrangements are depicted against a background that is a field of colour. There is a strong indication of a horizon line. The plants appear on an indeterminate ground rather than being placed on a supporting table. Indeed, these works can he read as a kind of landscape, the flowers themselves relating to large colourful trees. These paintings might be thought of as Still Scapes.

Throughout Dupuis' career, elements from a previous period have always been brought forward to reappear in the next. Dupuis' most recent landscapes, the "Moon Lake Pasture" series, combine a sense of lightness and openness with tight, harder-edged forms. The graphic element, so apparent in the still lifes, remains strong, but this does not in any way restrain. Rather, much in the way of Milne, line creates gentle rhythms as it defines form. With their greater amount of red, many of these works are also warm and sensuous.

Speaking of the contrast between his earlier penchant for aggressive and moody works and the almost contemplative beauty which characterizes much of his recent painting, Dupuis explained:

'I enjoy being elegant, and I have always been embarrassed about that… For the first time I feel that this kind of art is mine. Comfortable, yes, but mine. I feel so centered and natural.

NOTES
1) Marsden Harley, "Art _ and the Personal Life" in Theories of Modern Art, ed Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 527.
2) Lorenzo Dupuis in conversation with the author, Saskatoon Saskatchewan, 1999. All further quotation, unless indicated otherwise, are by Dupuis.
3) Clement Greenberg, The collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O'Brian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968). 511
4) Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 511.
5) Hans Hofmann, "Hans Hofmann, Excerpts from his Teaching" in Theories of Modern Art, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 538.
6) Greenberg, 153.
7) Nancy Tousley, "Spiriting the Sun and the Imagined," Border Crossings, Vol. 18, No. 2. 1999, 52.
8) Lawrence Alloway, "Systemic Painting," in Minimal Art, A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1968), 55.