Confrontation with mortality motivates artist’s pandemic-delayed exhibit

By: Alan Small
Posted: 09/23/2020 4:00 AM

Artist Patrick Treacy has many little boxes in his new exhibition, Magpie Beauty, but none of them is just the same.

Treacy’s boxes link each of the 13 oil paintings, 12 sketches, 19 photographs and six collages at the Cre8ery gallery’s main space. The sides of the boxes become their own vivid canvases for his art; in other cases, he uses other paintings or found photography to leap out of box tops, creating mysterious diversions from each work’s focal point.

“At first I didn’t know what the heck I was doing with the boxes,” Treacy says, adding he received inspiration from poetry to continue with the theme. “I didn’t understand what I was doing, and because I didn’t understand, I just built the boxes and just kept going and they became more interesting.

“I realized I had hit on a way of talking about a lot of stuff at once… I was having fun with these boxes too, ‘cause it seemed like I could put any content in there.”

Treacy is using the exhibition to emerge from his own health-related box. The 70-year-old created the works between 2014 and 2019, right after he withstood a cancer diagnosis and its treatments, which included surgery to remove his prostate gland.

Once the treatments were completed and he regained his health, he felt an urgency to get back into the studio that’s part of his West End home.

“There was a strange energy to say what I wanted to say,” he says, comparing his life to the horizon. “You think the horizon is far off, but I felt the horizon was coming close… You get the diagnosis and you immediately think about your vulnerability and your mortality. That is the context for sure.

Artist Patrick Treacy poses for a portrait at his show at the Cre8ery gallery in Winnipeg on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. For Al Small story.
Winnipeg Free Press 2020

“My subject matter comes from all the things that life has confronted me with and that has to be at the centre of the work.”

Treacy has been able to dodge COVID-19 in 2020, but Magpie Beauty has not. The exhibition was supposed to open in the spring, but the pandemic forced Cre8ery executive director Jordan Miller to put it on hold for six months. It’s on display at the Exchange District gallery until Sept. 29.

The art world, like almost every other aspect of human life this year, has been altered by the novel coronavirus and its contagiousness. Most art exhibitions begin with a grand opening, where the artist welcomes friends, art lovers and prospective buyers to the show, flitting about the gallery in an attempt to connect with the audience.

The pandemic meant there was no big party when Treacy’s show opened on Sept. 17. Instead, he was there to welcome visitors who popped by throughout the day to check out his works. The new normal made for a fascinating change of pace, he says.

“I was extremely reluctant. I thought it was risky to ask people to come,” Treacy says. “They’re coming in dribs and drabs, and there’s an opportunity for them to talk to each other as well. I think it’s a good thing, but you have to be vigilant.”

Treacy’s works are part of collections at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the University of Winnipeg, but private collectors, corporations and city businesses also own and display his works. For instance, Treacy’s landscape Island hangs in one of the boardrooms at the city law firm Thompson Dorfman Sweatman.

He has focused on landscapes during his 50-plus years as an artist, but his 2017 oil painting Monarchs, which was named a finalist for the Salt Spring National Art Prize, and Magpie Beauty, are a departure.

“(There are) only glimpses of landscapes, and landscapes appearing on the sides of boxes,” Treacy says. “It was really fun to do that to get away from pure landscape work.”

Patrick Treacy’s show at the Cre8ery gallery in Winnipeg on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. For Al Small story.
Winnipeg Free Press 2020

The different landscapes abound in his 2018 painting Crown, including one on the crown of a man rising from a box, which itself sports a reflected landscape, as well on an another box containing a hooded skeleton.

The artist’s father worked for the Hudson’s Bay Co. in northern Manitoba and Ontario, in reserve communities such as Pikangikum and Sandy Lake, where a young Treacy became fond of the outdoors and the Canadian Shield in particular. But it wasn’t until many years later did he realize he grew up as a young witness of Canada’s colonial history.

“You have the Indigenous reserve nearby and a minimal number of white people,” he recalls. “As a child I grew up around that, and I never understood what context that was about and now as an adult I say, ‘Oh my God.’ I was right in the heart of colonialism and all those things that are emerging now.”

In his introduction to the exhibition, Treacy calls himself a magpie gatherer, saying he collects images from magazines and books, gathering them together like a magpie’s chaotic nest of artistic ideas.

“I’m putting one cultural artifact, a found image, beside another cultural artifact and the meanings erupt out of that. That’s what fascinated me about the boxes. I could put stuff on the box, and things emerging out of the box.

“You don’t want to control meaning, but you want it to be there in all of its variety,” he says.

For those who’ve spent a frustrating summer shooing away magpies from barking dogs and hummingbird feeders, you can relax — you won’t find any of the thieving birds here. The title of the show comes a phrase in Writing Ellen West, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Frank Bidart.

“This is kind of hysterical. There are no magpies in the show. There’s a kingfisher and a crow,” he says with a chuckle. “I struggle with titles that are evocative and make people interested, but I just had to borrow that one. It was great.”