Redefining the Landscape

Karla Hayward
The Telegram
October 21, 2005

Kevin Sonmor brings new definition to the term landscape painting. On his canvases, you won’t find fields of flowers, crashing waves or delicate sunsets. Instead, there are fine, deep reds, murky browns, bone-white fields, and a dense, moody interaction of light and shadow.
Born in Alberta, Sonmor spent most of his life in Montreal, but recently bought a home in Newfoundland.

“Jim (Baird) called me up out of the blue. He had my name from I don’t know where. He said, ‘Is this Kevin Sonmor the artist?’ and when I said yes, he asked if I’d like to come out to Pouch Cove, to the artist residence. That was about five years ago. I came two years in a row, and then I found my own place, in Tors Cove. It’s right on the water, so the last few days have just been incredible, with the wind and the waves,” Sonmor said.

It’s not the sea and sky that Sonmor paints from that wind-clipped cliff however; for even though he credits Newfoundland with giving him more peace of mind than he has ever known, the physical presence of the province has not yet influenced his paintings directly.

“None of my paintings come from the real landscape. They come from other paintings, historical paintings — my reference is art,” he explained.

“Not specific other paintings, just a general sort of sense of painting. My paintings reference everything from French genre paintings to American abstract expressionism, almost anything that has been done historically, and I throw it all into my paintings.”

Sonmor’s canvases are captivating, particularly the larger-scale pieces. It can loosely be termed contemporary landscape painting, wandering between the pictorially based traditional landscape and the contemporary, spare esthetic of the abstract expressionists. At times it can appear bleak, almost desolate, but Sonmor manages to invite and maintain interest with rich, deep colour, the high gloss of his finishes, and the complexity of the play of light and shadow.

“When I look at paintings historically, when I look at a Rembrandt or a painting about God, I don’t know anything about (the subject), and I’m not interested in it. But I still know it’s a good painting,” he said.

“So, my question is, what is it that makes those paintings good? It’s not the subject matter, but something makes them good. It’s that elusive something, whatever it happens to be, that I am always looking for. One of the ways I do that is by emptying out weighted, meaningful subject matter in the same way that the abstract expressionists did — they got rid of subject matter because they wanted to focus on the paintings. So, I’m doing kind of the same thing, just without getting rid of the subject matter entirely.”

It’s perhaps because of his focus on an elusive goal, or his attention to the art of painting and the techniques behind it, that Sonmor is considered something of a purist; a painter’s painter.

“I see (the paintings) as exercises. I probably see them much more pragmatically than the average person does. People can look at my paintings any way they want — but for me, it’s about painting; part of a long journey I am on, and I am still honing my craft. I hope that happens for my entire life,” he said.

That journey consumes most of Sonmor’s time. While he is personally engaging and friendly, he is almost a textbook example of the reclusive artist. Painting is his main focus.

“There are probably a million goals (to my painting) — it’s a complex thing,” he said.

“Painting is not just an activity that you do, it’s a way you look at the world, a way … that you live your life.”

Many of Sonmor’s canvases appear almost post-apocalyptic, and reference humanity or nature’s presence in only the most basic of ways. Often, in the midst of the featureless field of colour and light, he will insert a bunch of grapes, or a piece of rich cloth, or the skull of a moose. It serves to highlight the starkness of the rest of the canvas; a juxtaposition of artificiality and reality. It can be jarring, but provokes interest, and offers a rest for the eye.

“I’m not trying to send a message at all, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that people find things in my paintings,” he said.

“Maybe they relate it to themselves, maybe to their knowledge. I can’t inject that — people have to find it themselves.”

Sonmor’s newest exhibition, Kevin Sonmor: Paintings, opens Sunday at Pouch Cove elementary in Pouch Cove. His work can be viewed online at www.kevinsonmor.com.