Sara MacCulloch at Studio 21, Halifax

By Jon Claytor

How do you review a painting exhibition you do not understand? Sara MacCulloch’s beautiful landscapes at Studio 21 should not be a mystery. The set-up is familiar: paintings line the walls of a white cube (or, as most people will see this particular show, they appear with the glow of a tablet or phone screen from a virtual gallery visit). Whether in person or digitally the paintings soothe me, comfort me, inspire me, and quietly thrill me, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is about them that does this. Perhaps I can do a better job of describing the effect this work has on me if I talk about what isn’t there.

Sara MacCulloch, Kingsport Dusk 2, 2020, oil on canvas

There are no lines in a Sara MacCulloch painting, just colour and tone – soft undulating fields of colour and delicate tonal shifts that define the form of the landscapes only when they touch. Swaths of colour create shapes without hard edges when placed side by side. In this way, nothing stands alone in these paintings. Every shape and hue of the landscape is created in conjunction with the shape beside it. That slim liminal space between forms, where a line would be but is not, creates the illusion of these landscapes. Every element of the composition is necessary for the illusion of space to be created. There is no dominant foreground or background, each area of colour and tone in the composition is equally vital.  But this didn’t register when I first looked at the paintings. I was simply and magically transported through the window of the canvas to a special place and moment.

There is no time in a Sara MacCulloch painting. Or I should say, no particular, definable time. Time stands still, as in all painting, but in these paintings the exact hour is oddly indeterminate. It is always in between recognizable moments. Somewhere between dawn and morning, dusk and evening, just before or just after the bright noon-hour sun. As the illusion of space is created with the invisible line between forms, time is created in MacCulloch’s paintings by finding the line between one part of the day and the next. These paintings occupy a space straddling both sides of a temporal transition – freezing in colour and form the in between moments of the day.

There are no people in Sara MacCulloch’s paintings, at least none we can see. There is always at least one we can never see: the artist. Her gaze, her act of looking, saturates the images with a point of view. We are given a window into the artist’s perception of her world. These are personal places full of personal meaning.  Of course, I am basing this on a feeling, a hunch, be it a strong one, that there is a story behind the scenes that is not told. These are not the newly discovered secret sceneries of an intrepid explorer’s adventures. They are shared landscapes, the view from a path, beach, highway, or cottage that is visited annually with family and friends.

Sara MacCulloch, Driving home with dad, 2020, oil on canvas

Perhaps this effect of a communal viewpoint can be best explained by looking at Driving home with dad. In the painting we see a stretch of road as seen from the car. There is no sign of driver or passenger, and yet we are keenly aware of their presence as they look at the road, and we also think of all the other travelers who have looked down that same road. We’ve all had those long rides with a friend sharing the same view and quiet conversation as night falls and the miles slip past. All her work has this compound viewpoint as MacCulloch takes us with her to her most treasured landscapes. There may be no one in sight and yet through the artist’s generosity of shared vision we mysteriously do not feel alone.

One thing I believe I do understand about this show is that the magic of these pieces resides in the language of paint. The artist’s hand, the colour on canvas, the age-old medium of oils create unique, nuanced, and unexplainable effects. Each medium has its place, its virtues and its ineffable qualities. In the language of paint MacCulloch has found the perfect expression for her subtle meditations on the act of looking, of being in a place, and of witnessing the everyday sublime beauty of a Nova Scotian beach, field, or highway. And I, for one, am grateful for a little shared magic and mystery these days.

Sara MacCulloch: In Between continues until May 6.
Studio 21:
The gallery is partially accessible and currently open.

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick. He is the co-founder of Sappyfest and Thunder & Lightning Ideas Ltd.