Avenues of communication

By Aaren Madden, May 2014

A fascination with cities and architecture lies behind Linda Darby’s recent works.

For a few years in the 1890s, Claude Monet painted dozens of images of Rouen Cathedral’s Gothic façade from the same vantage point at various hours, seasons, and weather conditions, as if in an attempt to crack the code of light. Ultimately, he became engaged in a dialogue that involved artist, process, architecture, light, and ensuing multiple experiences of an iconic city space, through what author Robert Pelfrey has described as “recording visual sensations [in and of] themselves.” 

Such a dialogue opens up even further once you “go beyond form and content,” as Victoria painter Linda Darby articulates. “I like to go toward what they call ambiguous abstract, where there are different kinds of associations you can take from looking at [a painting].” Therefore, though her most recent acrylic on canvas work reads as cityscapes, they are evocative rather than representational. 

A painting titled “Boogie Town” is, for her, a manifestation of her experience of London, England. Interestingly, “it wasn’t until it was done and I had reflected on it that I realized it,” she shares. The painting was the eponymous piece from her first solo show with Martin Batchelor Gallery in 2012, which was a celebration of “the harmonies and discords of urban life.” Her fascination therein has to do with those visual sensations, to be sure, but just as much with the personal associations that are opened up by ambiguity in form. For Darby, painting is about the relationship between image, memory and place.

“Boogie Town” became the departure point for a new series that Darby will show, along with work by Frances Beckow, at Martin Batchelor Gallery in May. Committing to a series allowed Darby to explore that relationship and “to really look at why I’m doing it,” she says.

Her inquiries begin with process. She plays translucence against opacity for heightened contrast and atmospheric effects, and will use a sgraffito technique to create patterns. “I have an interest in decorative abstract, from early works of Klimt, and I also like all different textures. This painting has layers upon layers of different acrylic media underneath that have built up the ground.” She points to a gravelly surface on a work in progress. “That’s pumice, which I really like. You see how it’s got bits in it?” The sun streaming in the window rakes over the canvas and pops the textured pumice into high relief. 

The work in progress lays flat on a table—temporarily. Painting is highly kinetic for Darby, involving movements ranging from the spontaneous to the fastidious. In her spacious backyard, she tilts and rotates canvases to achieve the paradoxical grid of a modern highrise, or else to create sinuous Art Nouveau shapes that reply to solid rectangles. She drizzles layers of paint, thickly and joyfully, onto canvas for a pentimento effect. The detail work happens when she feels the need to adjust a certain colour, or, say, fill in an intriguing shape to create a positive space from negative.

“There is this internal dialogue that I like about painting. It’s almost like working with a puzzle,” she says, pointing to a painting with a towering structure on the left, balanced by ethereal spheres suggestive of sky and a blue swirl of harbour. Stark white drips of paint wriggle across the surface. “I like this work here with the lines, but why did I do that on top? I did all this work, and then to put these lines! But in the end, I liked it. It’s so heavy a structure, it just gives it some joy, some spontaneous lift.”

As all artists do, she sometimes paints over a work she is not satisfied with. “But in this case, I allowed some of the older painting to come through. It was like going back and having a dialogue with myself from the past—like altering a dress,” she offers. “In keeping with the series, I imposed the structure on it. So here’s the city, but there’s some associations you can make with the pipe work underground, what is underneath these structures, what was there before,” she points out. The sense of an aerial view superimposed onto the frontal adds to the multiplicity of the image. The work she refers to is titled “Conurbation,” a term that refers to distinct urban centres that have merged due to population and physical growth—a term that resonates here in our region. 

Therefore, upon viewing, her work could spark thoughts on the urban experience, including questions that plague us in Victoria in particular—when will that tower, stretching off the canvas, reach its full height? Or, due to their ambiguity, a flash of memory could be incited by a certain simple shape. “My goal is to have a range of meanings and associations that can come out from the abstract work,” Darby explains. “That’s what I think the power of contemporary artwork is.”

Seeing them emerge personally is a delight for Darby. For her, the colours and shapes reminisce about travels, of which she has had many, or the minutiae of daily life. A smaller work including minty tones calls to mind a recent trip to Cuba. A cluster of shapes remind her of the CBC logo (she listens to the station while she paints). In one tower shape, her husband sees a guitar, and in another, she sees a banjo (she plays both instruments).

Aspects of Darby’s fascinating past emerge continuously in her work. Now 66 years old, she grew up in Fernie, BC, swimming the lakes in summer and skiing in winter. After studying education with a focus (not surprisingly) on geography at Simon Fraser University, she attended Emily Carr School of Art in Vancouver. It was the 1980s and “painting was dead,” she says. “I did things like performance work, installation; all students worked together. It was a wonderful experience.” It wasn’t until she moved to Victoria in 1996 that Darby began to study painting, and she found classes with John Luna at Vancouver Island School of Art particularly inspiring. 

But why cities? The time she spent teaching in Africa with CUSO included trips to immense urban centres like Lagos, sparking her fascination. “I think it’s just that they’re so overwhelming,” she says, adding that she hopes to visit New York and Chicago soon: “I am really moved by contemporary architecture.” 

But she’s also inspired by the night sky she fell in love with while sailing the South Pacific for five years with her husband, whom she met while teaching in Kitimat. The crisp blues in her work are certainly echoes of that time. As few do today, they arrived to settle in Victoria by boat—and the approaching inner harbour views figure in many of her paintings. “That’s the role memory plays. You paint something, you think you are just allowing lines to form, and out comes a city on the edge!” laughs Darby.


Good Vibrations, featuring Linda Darby and Frances Beckow, opens at Martin Batchelor Gallery Saturday May 3, 7-9pm, and continues to May 29. 712 Cormorant Street, 250-385-7919, Mon-Sat, 10-5pm.

In addition to the privilege of speaking with Linda Darby about her art practice, Aaren Madden, neophyte banjo player, appreciates the great musical advice she received.