"…But I Know What I Like": The Arts of Christopher Pratt

I’ve been living a modest bike ride from the National Gallery of Canada for three and a half years, and yesterday I made it there for my (count ‘em) second visit. This is a deeply pitiable record for someone who claims interest in the arts, but I have to admit: the visual arts pieces in the Globe’s Review section are the only ones I can skip without anxiety. I’m more likely to read a dance review than one on contemporary painting, which may explain a little about why it was Christopher Pratt that ultimately drew me to the National Gallery.

Pratt is a living painter, though not necessarily a contemporary one. His paintings astonish because of their hyper-realistic detail, but also because of a fantastical feeling often attaching itself to the most mundane subjects. Or objects: you won’t find such messy and unpredictable things as people in a Pratt. (I don’t know if he would be labelled with the same “magic realism” brush as Alex Colville – for one thing, the brooding sense of menace is not so likely in Pratt – but he did train with Colville and shares a predilection for clean, precise (yet mysterious) realistic treatments that do not smack of kitsch.) I’d been somewhat more familiar with the exuberant work of Mary Pratt, his ex-wife, and first became interested in Christopher via his poetry, which I heard him reading during a radio interview. It struck me as plain and good, and when I toured his exhibit, it became all the more amazing that someone with his monkish devotion to painting could spare the mental energy and time to attain skill in another métier. But he has. A quiet dynamo.

I found his painting compelling. I laboured over each work, watching the evolution of his interests and skills and fascinated by the incredible level of application, of discipline. Unsophisticated as I am in the visual arts, his style — one in which technical skill (and painstaking, tiny-brushed attacks on often quite large canvases) is so obvious — likely makes it easy for me to appreciate his industry and skill. I loved to hear him speak of his approach to being an artist, and to watch film of Pratt at work in his studio. It’s a level of artistic focus, a grimly rigorous expression of passion, of which I can only dream. He gets himself to the studio and he is not afraid of the work, nor is there any apparent intimidation in the face of the empty canvas. It’s a wild, an extreme level of self-discipline (or canalized love), nearly frightening and utterly humbling to this sometime scribbler. His pieces are dazzling, but I was stunned as much by his furious method as by his distinctive and prodigious output. Whew. I left exhausted and moved.