The miracle before us

By Aaren Madden, September 2015

By re-presenting landscapes with views both intimate and monumental, Brent Lynch invokes the sanctity of the everyday.

The oil on canvas landscape painting by Brent Lynch called “Raven on Glass” is so named for the sleek bird that glides inches above the wet sand along a West Coast beach on Vancouver Island. “A raven is throwing shells down on a beach—but it’s not about that,” Lynch says. From this viewer’s perspective, it’s about the way the mountains in the background push against and even through the top edge of the picture plane; about how thin layers of pigment add up to a wide sheen of sand that wants to sweep under the viewer’s feet. And the way the horizon line seems thrust back into space. Traditional expectations of foreground, middle ground and background are messed with in a way that says, “Look at this.”

While he also paints the figure and portraits, Lynch is best known among galleries and collectors as a painter of such coastal scenes, along with those of locations in the Rocky Mountains and the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, where he spends some time in the winter months. He has gallery representation in all of those locations and locally at The Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay. 

Works there include some of sandstone beaches on Hornby Island which offer almost an ant’s eye view, as if the viewer were kneeling in supplication to the land forms with their ancient markings, while distant bathers stretch, indifferent, in the sun. “Driftwood I” shows a jumble of sun-streaked and surf-sculpted wood over which the eye climbs, towards distant mountains and sky rendered in a misty purple and seafoam green reminiscent of Fred Varley’s seascapes from the 1930s. 

Varley’s particular green carried deeper meaning, which was among the ways he injected his art practice with a spirituality—not to be confused with a religiosity. It’s something many artists strive for, Lynch among them. One of his means is through exploring the possibilities of composition. “I’m more interested in space and a sense of space which would evoke more of the spiritual elements of life,” he suggests. “I think of my paintings more as springboards to the imagination. I want the viewer to be involved as much as anything. If a painting doesn’t do that, it’s not really successful.” 

To achieve this, Lynch uses many forms of visual communication gleaned from years of observation and experience. He was one of those kids who was always drawing. The walls, the floors, and yes, even his baby brother’s head were all surfaces that invited his marks. Born in 1953 in Vancouver, he was one of five kids in a large Irish Catholic family. When he was ten years old, his family moved to Ladner, where his father purchased and ran a grocery store with a profitable flair that did not go unnoticed by his impressionable son. “Anything can be creative,” Lynch would learn, while absorbing the “rhythm and beauty” of rural life.

Full of energy, Lynch did not avoid a degree of trouble. As a teenager, his parents sent him to the private Catholic boys’ school, Vancouver College. “It was good for me; I was the kind of kid that needed structure,” he says. There were no art classes, the focus being on academics and athletics. Though he has always found himself “at odds” with the Catholic Church, religious studies classes gave Lynch a new awareness of a rich visual and literary culture steeped in symbol and metaphor. “It gave me a different take on our traditions and where we come from in western culture,” he reflects, adding, “It caught my imagination, too.” 

Lynch then endured four months at the University of British Columbia—“hated it”—and a stint at Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University) before, at 18 or 19 years old, escaping to travel with a friend. Yet his education continued. While in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for a year, he hungrily visited museums and galleries.

More than anything, it was the architecture in these places that resonated with him. The contrast between two religious structures in particular impressed upon him how differently spaces can interact with the body and mind. “One of the churches I loved the most was a small country church on the outskirts of Rome,” he remembers. “It was just really intimate. Compared to St Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican, it was like night and day. Yet they both had their message. To me, the small churches were so intimate that you just felt the presence when you were in them, but the big cathedrals are more fear-driven—the wrath and the power. This was all conscious designing,” he realized. “I really got to understand what the architects were trying to do in the spaces.”

That idea stayed with him when, in high contrast, he returned to Canada and worked in a logging camp near Port McNeill before studying art at Langara College, then heading to St Martin’s School of Fine Arts in London. While he never graduated from a program, he became aware of applied arts as a vocation, and he did learn from his instructors—Nicholas Ray and David Hockney among them—that “you’re either going to do this or you’re not.” 

From this knowledge followed a year and a half working as a cartoonist for the Vancouver Sun before going for it as an illustrator, leading to a successful 35-year career. “I did everything from ballet to theatre to sports to cultural events. For somebody who likes to paint the figure, it was perfect,” he says. 

As his three kids got older, he devoted more time to his own painting. He moved to Nanoose Bay about eight years ago, where his recent “Ballenas Covenant” was painted off his back deck. Plein air painting is his passion, since it allows him to capture the intimacy of those unorthodox viewpoints, offering both what he sees and how he sees it. 

“We have all these preconceptions as human beings,” he says. “So when you’re not thinking about the mortgage, the kids, the grandchildren, whatever, and you are really seeing what’s in front of you, it’s very very powerful.” In a life drawing session, for instance, “this model all of a sudden becomes this creature you’ve never seen before, and you see the beauty and strength of [the body] and everything else. And you go into this other world—the real world, really.” It’s the ultimate goal, for an artist to be present in their own practice in this way. And to convey such moments to the viewer, for Lynch, is a way of saying, “We are living in a miracle, and there it is right in front of you. Look at this.”

 

Brent Lynch’s work will be part of the group show Coastal Inspirations at Avenue Gallery October 1-9. Other artists include Susie Cipolla, Ron Parker, Rob Elphinstone, Mary-Jean Butler, Linzy Arnott, Bi Yuan Cheng, Crystal Heath, and Blu Smith. Opening reception with artists in attendance Thursday October 1, 6-8pm. 2184 Oak Bay Avenue, 250-598-2184, www.theavenuegallery.com. Brent Lynch can be found online at www.brentlynch.net.

As a toddler, Aaren Madden’s go-to crayon colour for “painting the walls” was bright red, while her daughter favours a polychromatic approach.