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Bev Tosh: Prairie Girls

April 26, 2016

by Monique Westra

Matinee Girl 2014 oil and gold leaf 9x12 web

Bev Tosh’s most recent work is related to her acclaimed war brides project. The new paintings also depict young women during wartime dressed in the styles of the day. Body language remains a vital conduit of meaning. But they differ significantly from the war brides in their small scale, the canvas support and especially in their lack of specificity. These are not portraits. Their anonymity is in many ways liberating for the artist. Without the need to be faithful to the likeness of a particular individual, Tosh feels free to experiment and to take creative chances: “I wanted to express more than I wanted to refine. With the war brides I felt honour bound to create a likeness of that person.” These small paintings do not represent one particular woman on her wedding day, but all young women in that moment in history who, in spite of everything, still wanted to be stylish.

For the first time in 14 years, Tosh is painting on canvas again, albeit on a small scale. Using broad strokes, she starts by laying in a warm sepia-toned ground, unconcerned about covering the entire surface of the support. Glancing only briefly at a tiny black and white photograph as inspiration, she draws directly into the wet impasto, incising marks with a soft pencil. With just a few deft strokes, she quickly establishes the essentials of the pose and aspects of the clothing. Then, propelled by her growing excitement, she applies another layer of paint, in order to “search out” the form by enveloping it and shaping the emerging silhouette. In this way, the form seems to materialize from a swelling tide of Naples Yellow Light, which blends with the underlying and still wet sepia ground. She makes marks using brushes, rags and her fingers. The creative process is made manifest, as each step leaves active traces of the artist in its wake.

These small, precious paintings in their ornate frames are masterpieces of innuendo and suggestion. With virtually no detail, no setting, no context, two colours and just a few marks, each work is extraordinarily telling. We intuit from the clothing a particular historical period, namely the 1940s. We know from the contours of their silhouettes that these are women. We see from their body language and gestures that they are young. From their broad-shouldered heavy coats, their stance, raised shoulders and tight torsos, we sense the cold of winter. From their chic hats and fur-ruffled ankle boots, we note their elegance and grace. And yet, the images remain as fleeting and as enigmatic as memory, lost and found at the same time.

In 2011, Tosh created a huge group portrait of war brides using one unbroken length of wire. Now working on an intimate scale, she unfurls sinuous line drawings in wire. These loose and simplified figurative outlines are, like the sepia silhouettes, expressive of body language and just as elusive. In an inspired moment, Tosh affixed a little wire drawing to one of the paintings. The unexpected juxtaposition delighted her because it added yet another dimension to her work.

The war brides series, for which Bev Tosh is best known, was directly inspired by her mother, Dorothy, a war bride from Saskatoon who married a New Zealand airman. She died in 2012 at the age of ninety-one, having never spoken to her daughter about her experience. Yet, she continues to be the primary source for Prairie Girls. The exhibition includes several works that can be traced to her mother including a painting of a carefree and radiant newlywed, seated in an aura of golden sunshine; Prairie Girl, a vertical-format painting depicting a shy and smiling Dorothy, eyes obscured by the shadow cast by the tilt of her round hat; and Passage, a large, magnificently exuberant painting that captures her mother’s joy seated in a brilliant red canoe.

Tosh uses her mother’s 1940s photo album as a resource for her images. She was moved by a tiny photograph showing a trio of laughing girls. In Mirage, she transformed the source image by altering the poses and setting the figures in a reflective, beach-like setting. Using primarily oil sticks, Tosh created this spectacularly dynamic painting in a burst of spontaneous energy.  In its layering, looseness, gestural marks, open contours, and vivid colours, it is strongly reminiscent of the late pastel works of Degas.

Prairie Girls will be on display at Masters Gallery in Calgary, April 18 until May 5, 2016.

Portraits in Sepia, Stories in Silk: Canada’s British War Brides will be on display in Canada House in London, England from May 5, 2016 until the end of June.

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