Landscapes : Reading and Memory

I have recently finished reading Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” – which I thought was brilliant. As I progressed through the four novel set, which makes for a great summer read, I continually felt that I was experiencing the streets, the open windows, the smells of food, days at the beach, cramped apartments, gatherings and other interactions between the characters. Taking a step back I was intrigued at how something as simple as “text” – strings of symbols, concatenated or spaced – could conjure a fully fleshed out albeit imaginary world. The act of reading Ferrante created a flow; text became images, a fabric of sorts was sewn and stretched across my imagination.  I was delighted to find out that the Latin for “fabric” is textum. Texts can create paintings.

Shore Lines by Dan Nuttall
Dan Nuttall, “Shore Lines”, acrylic on wood panel, 4 x 8 feet

The opposite, of course, can occur. We can look at a painting or work of art and “read” it, creating a “text” of sorts. Symbols, signs, colour, forms and other stimuli create associations and messages that reach out to confront our gaze. Sometimes the story is robust and coherent and other times it is a rough assemblage of ideas, sometimes more like sentences, often just a few words or a notion. Sometimes art presents us with a blank page and it remains unwritten, unread.

Dan Nuttall, “Broad Stream” (quadriptych), acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each


The National Gallery in London breaks down the process of reading paintings as follows:

“Reading a painting is similar to reading a book:

  • The reader decodes symbols to establish meaning
  • The reader uses inference and deduction (e.g. body language) to deepen understanding
  • A reader’s previous knowledge and experience affects their personal response”

Memory of course plays a role, intimately tied to experience, and our reading of a painting’s text ends up being diagnostic – speaking about who we are, what some of our experiences have been, what our “world views” may be.

Dan Nuttall, “Siwash”, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 48″

My first solo show at Lee Contemporary Art, in Orillia, this summer, is a retrospective of sorts, a chance to look back in time and allow viewers to read multiple texts at the same time. Or, in other words, to glance at a group of paintings or texts and ask : Is there an overarching or meta-narrative? What are the common themes?

Dan Nuttall art painting Cry Me Some Rivers diptych web
Dan Nuttall, “Cry Me Some Rivers” (diptych), acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 30″ each
rivers/symmetry/face/song/ecological art/ecology

Of course, telling someone abut a book or a painting is often both a dull and corrupting process. And yet people who visit galleries often want to know “What does this picture mean?”, “What was the artist thinking or trying to achieve?”. So, to accompany this exhibition I thought perhaps a balanced approach might work – I would say something minimal about these works – perhaps just words even, and allow the reader and/or viewer to assemble the text. These words are beneath each of the paintings above, and are intended to provide points of reflection, threads form which larger stories may be woven. These paintings, and others, will be included in “Landscapes : Reading and Memory”.

These paintings serve as a gathering of texts. From such gatherings a library of sorts arises, an edifice that is created by both the artist and those that gaze upon art. A place where both can dwell.

Please feel free to comment or to get in touch with me regarding this post. My exhibition information is as follows:


Dan Nuttall


 August 10 – September 2, 2017


Lee Contemporary Art

Upper Level, 5 Peter St. S.,

Orillia, ON, L3V 5A8

(705 ) 331-3145


Hours: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 10 – 4







Streams of Thought : Mystical Emanations in Art

For just a brief moment my body, suspended mid-leap, is doubled, my reflection in the stream’s surface a fleeting portrait of a teenaged boy trapped between the blues of sky and water. I am fleet-footed at this age, able to bound from boulder to boulder, curious about the matted bundles of driftwood, the truncated forest edges, the suspended log pathways, the coursing water both hidden and in plain sight. I feel a part of nature, a creature sensing its way along a watercourse.

Dan Nuttall, “Fall Stream”, diptych, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each, SOLD

The stream connects me to life – a wren nest wedged where deadfall branches interlace, robust pungent moss pressed under my palms, smoothed stones, crunching sorted gravel and sand. As if a paintbrush has been flicked, a spatter of dark olive streaks dart to where my amphibious scuffing of rocks has dislodged algae. The small green cloud drifts, all pattern, change and sustenance.

Dan Nuttall, “Snag Stream”, diptych, acryic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each

Shoulder to shoulder bleached granite sentries create a jumbled causeway of exits and impasses. I am humbled by their smoothness, their completeness, the ease of their weighted, shouldering postures, so separate from the stuff of water and so inseparable from the idea of stream. The light is emanating around me, floating above the gravel beds, glancing back from every riffle, splashing back at the world in radiating rings, mixing with the dappled streambank shade. The world, in flux, hovers between abstract and real.

Dan Nuttall, “Forest Stream”, quadriptych, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each
Dan Nuttall, “Urban Stream”, hexaptych, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each


Years later, far from any stream, but not so far from the Hudson River, I am standing in the Whitney Museum in New York City looking at the delightful paintings of Charles Burchfield. The show, aptly titled “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” is mostly watercolours. Many of them have been painted as if elements within the painting are vibrating, and the overall effect of the brushstrokes is one of a charged atmosphere. Here are my “emanations”.

DETAIL, Charles Burchfield, “Autumnal Fantasy”, watercolour on paper, 1916-44

Charles Burchfield’s emanations captured sound, light and the ephemerality of nature. His watercolour painting “Autumnal Fantasy” (1916-44), seems to be alive with calls of nuthatches, while the pounding light of the sun passes in crescents through the woodland clearing and between the trees. Even the holes in tree trunks seem to emote. The very substance of nature hangs precariously on the page, waiting for entropy and the eye to force their way between the vestiges of substance. Guy Davenport, writing in “Charles Burchfield’s Seasons”, suggests that “The step from Van Gogh to Willem de Kooning is a short one… that Burchfield… took in his own way, into an idiomatic calligraphy of his own devising, a sign language for radiant light, for wind, for insect song, for emanations”. Expressionistic in his treatment of light, Burchfield’s works is often described as mystical and visionary. His paintings leave me with the feeling that he is able to see a nature more alive than nature. Though he has not received as much attention as many other American painters it is worth noting that Burchfield had the distinction of being the first person to receive a one-person exhibition at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in 1930.

DETAIL, Emily Carr, BC Forest Interior, 1935


Similarly, Emily Carr’s emanations are rooted in the mystical. While Burchfield’s emanations were more discrete and identifiable, Carr’s merged in large swooping streams of colour that radiate from nature or course through the air, becoming a vital plasm in which all things are immersed. In “Edge of the Forest” (1935), the central tree seems to be the source of an emanating aura which fills the sky. In “Juice of Life” (1939) and “Blue Sky” (1936) all of nature moves together, a synchronous coalescing flow within the universe. Carr’s exposure to Christianity, particularly her upbringing with Calvinism, her experimentation with theosophy, her later reading of The Sadhu written by B. H. Streeter (about a Christian mystic from Punjab named Sadhu Sunder Singh), ultimately become layered in her approach to painting – an approach that uses radiating or coursing illumination to depict an ecstatic source of enlightenment. In Carr’s representations of nature we find a form of reconciliation, a pronouncement of the world at peace, often with a sense of calm, harmony, or joy – akin to the experience of a soul in union with a higher power.

Dan Nuttall, “Broad Stream”, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each

The painting of emanations draw our attention to nature and then beyond nature, to the unknown and unseen. Life, as if subatomic, both light particle and wave, illustrating the engine, the power, the mystery that drives it all.

By dwelling on the ephemerality that Burchfield  so boldly pronounced we are able to inhabit that “soft focus” moment of being dazzled and at peace with nature. However, unlike Carr’s mystical harmony these works present a pulling apart, a disassembly, through the use of a fractured and changeful whole. The viewer must work, engaging the parts and using energy to assemble the whole – an ecological act in itself.

You can find more of my work here: http//

You can find me on FaceBook here:


The Mind Is A Zoo

Shore Lines by Dan Nuttall
Dan Nuttall, SHORE LINES, acrylic on wood panel,  4 x 8′, $5000 CAD

The landscape in this painting was created through the reconfiguration of an abandoned bear exhibit found in a zoo. Originally opened in 1962 the bear exhibit expresses the era’s design thinking – nature simplified, abstracted into modern geometries that keep the animal contained and on view while accommodating the display of some behavior patterns. If the exhibit’s role in animal containment can be set aside the bear exhibit is actually quite a beautiful assemblage of shapes and spaces, a giant concrete sculpture squatting in a bowl, a sunken hollowed-out Guggenheim. The composition has clean lines and hard edges with nature abstracted as tunnel, bridge, pond, cliff face, edge, promontory and plain. The eye can discern different paths for movement and the minimal slopes that accommodate both the need for maintenance and animal safety.

Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 1″, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36”

Mimesis is defined as imitation. Mimicry, for example is a form of mimesis in which, over evolutionary time frames, one group of organisms evolves to share the characteristics of another group – often as a form of conferred protection. The role of mimesis extends to the act of painting itself – artists try to imitate things. To what end the serialized imitations of nature found in art?


Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 2″, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36”

Initially, the bear occupied an in situ habitat which was re-imagined as an ex situ zoo exhibit. Using the ex situ exhibit as a starting point the painting reorganizes the exhibits design language and, this time, imagines a novel “wild space”, transforming the exhibit into another habitat, a new wild. This new wild, metaphorically speaking, “returns” both the bear and the viewer to the wild. Further iterations are possible. In the painting the repetition of lines and shapes creates repeated spaces. The repetition allows the eye to make comparisons and to begin to sense pattern and discrepancy – akin to an animal surveying its surroundings. The repetition of form, with its genesis in nature should seem familiar to us – the observer is a sensing animal after all – and introduces a kind of déjà vu – a recollected story told through the repeated use of known words or phrases. What we know, as human animals, is coming back to us, inverted and flipped, playing with our perception and yet familiar.

Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 3″, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36”

The oneiric state of the painting provides an overarching serenity linking both the familiar and the strange. One wonders what animals dream when they are born in captivity and exposed solely to a single environment. Is there still something deep and rudimentary that can arise from a genetic or shared consciousness? Some archetypical memory? As one gazes, the familiarity of lines and compositions is upended by the congruency of the synthetic whole and the desire to make sense of it. The water in the lower right hand corner of Shore Lines places the observer in the water, looking at the shore, as if in a boat, possibly adrift. There, at the edge, notions of distance, containment, barriers to movement and isolation come to the fore. Animal movement is naturally limited. Islands, mountain ranges, rivers, oceans. Is this the ultimate conundrum, coming to terms with the kinds of spaces animals will inhabit? How big should they be? Who should control inputs and outputs? Which species get to survive? Is domestication going to be the ultimate destiny for anything we allow to survive? Does it matter whether bars are visible or invisible? Does it matter that our dreams are merely stage sets designed by those who construct and narrate our realities? What thoughts should we be having about the fate of non-human animals? You can dwell on that HERE.

Dan Nuttall, “Mimesis 4″, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 40”


These paintings will be on display at my first solo art exhibition, at Lee Contemporary Art in Orillia, Ojtario, August 10 – September 2, 2017. More about Lee Contemporary Art HERE.

You can see all the paintings in the above show HERE.

And find out more about my larger  body of work here: