Robert Amos: Artist finds a focus in the abstract

Over the past three decades, Christine Reimer’s paintings have been a familiar presence in hotel lobbies, restaurants and some of Victoria’s finest homes. Her bold colours and sinuous lines capture the hills and shores of her island home in a distinctive way. But get set — her current solo exhibition at the lovely Community Arts Council gallery at Cedar Hill Arts Centre is a whole new thing. These generous canvases on show are completely abstract.

I spent a morning with Reimer in her garden studio recently, surrounded by the paintings that she has created since January of this year, and I asked her how this new departure originated.

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“It’s more of a shift for the viewer than it is for me,” she replied. Reimer reminded me that over the years she has painted more than landscapes, creating figurative work and also abstracted floral studies. She said that even when landscape was the subject, it was never about a specific location so much as it was about the colour. Taking in the bold paintings arranged around her, she commented that “this to me doesn’t feel strange. Even in the older paintings I was looking for pattern, shape and colour, sometimes not even looking at what that represents.”

Maybe so, but since January this year she has left representational subject matter behind. Leading up to it were five really difficult years. Her father died, and her mother passed away with “a particularly awful type of cancer.” Then both her in-laws died, and also she was affected by the sudden death of a niece, who left her children without a mother. Reimer’s painting was, understandably, set aside for a while. “I just felt it was unimportant in that period.” She found it all “horribly shocking. It weighed me down terribly. My grief needed to be expressed and I didn’t know where I was headed.”

Reimer is a strong person, and has the unwavering support of her husband and two children. Back in the studio, she found her art practice was a perfect place to explore those deep feelings. To create her signature landscapes she had always started with a sketch, but now she took a different approach. Setting a canvas on her easel, she started with colour and texture, and occasionally “some kind of line. The design is going to come from this line,” she told herself. Always confident, she was able to enjoy waiting for the appearance of what she calls a “random perfection.” To her this paradox now was central to her work, “looking for that perfect thing that comes out of a random act.”

Happily lost in this play with the unformed, she allowed her creative decisions to evolve. The painting itself now told her where it was coming from, and going to. “I usually listen to CBC,” she told me, “and they often interview creative people, artists responding to the actual moment. Trying to know in advance never ever worked that way. The surprise of it all was the pleasure of it for me.” (Note: CBC deserves our support at this time, as it is being seriously curtailed. It is the soundtrack in many of the most constructive studios in the land.)

Reimer’s long experience with a brush has equipped her with a wide repertoire of mark-making strategies. Previously, Reimer composed her work with flowing brushstrokes of solid colour, but now she has opened herself creatively and fearlessly. The current canvases employ an aggressive edge of paint applied with a palette knife, and the linear rhythms of a comb drawn through the wet paint. The familiar buttery smoothness of her paintwork is now accented with a rough texture built up with pumice. Her colours are often broken with complementary hues scumbled on top. Scratching into the paint with a stick, her sgraffito allows the colours beneath to show through. Taking delight in the chemistry available with modern acrylic paints, she adds craquelure.

In earlier days she built her landscape images on the horizon line, but now she lets them loose. “It’s a different space,” she smiled. We were looking at a painting entitled Mystic Landfall. “It starts in the atmosphere rather than on the horizon. There is a floating quality. They’re different when you get close to them,” she noted. “That’s why I have this chair.” The comfortable chair on the far side of her studio is one of the poles of her “dance in the middle, when you are actually painting, going back and forth.”

Reimer put some words to a pivotal piece. “There’s a cave-like sort of thing happening at the top, like stalagtites. In the foreground are bleak mountains, and the blue disappears into background. This egg appeared, and it became rather interesting. I kept adding layers until it was just right. I can get bogged down into the details,” she laughed. With her earlier landscapes she was not bothered with those “picky details,” but now she is involved in a more thoughtful process. “After I’ve got the bones of the painting down, I ask myself where does this need to go, what is this saying to me?”

The artist noted her appreciation for the work of Jack Shadbolt, Blu Smith and Wendy Skog, and as she described the paintings in front of us, it was clear that her work is now evidently a voyage of discovery. She said her canvas titled When the Moon Falls from the Sky as an “elemental landscape going its own way.” It is a pleasure for me to look at, but completely on its own. “Something will appear,” she smiles. “That’s what keeps it fresh. For me it’s an archeological dig, and I don’t bore of it. I can look at it for a long, long time and continue to enjoy it.”

I see what she means.

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