At first glance, most of the 10 paintings in Patrick Dunford’s exhibition “Undergrowth” evoke what has been traditionally called “folk” or “outsider art”: images of trains emitting solid cones of light, childishly rendered human figures, blockish cars and trucks with wheels at odd angles. But the landscapes are more bleak and the painting more textural than in most folk art. The tension between the paintings’ gestures and the portrayal of deindustrialized urban and rural places is both fitting and productive: the disorientation caused by the loss of industry and the attendant losses of jobs and prosperity has often fuelled the rise of right-wing political movements, which deploy the same nostalgic, familiar and comforting evocation of place as what had been identified as folk art can offer. But there are no such comforts here.
In these paintings, the trains pass through damaged natural landscapes, or through desolate urban spaces with almost no human inhabitants. A few of the paintings feature abandoned, overgrown urban rail lines, with weeds in the gaps or the tracks torn up. These are for the most part post-industrial landscapes: neglected urban zones where tracks are no longer necessary because the factories have gone and there’s nothing to ship out. Trains, once the avatar of industry and a symbol of modernity, now signify differently. These days trains travel through undesirable and environmentally compromised areas, often carrying dangerous substances like the coal being transported in a couple of the paintings: coal is the dirtiest fuel, usually mined in the poorest places, places that are most often hit with deindustrialization. They bring waste from wealthier locations: the infamous garbage or sewage trains that deindustrialized regions are forced to accept when more lucrative forms of industry have pulled up stakes.
Three of the paintings depart from the dominant train motif. In Delayed Funeral at Falcon Lake, we see a COVID-era burial in one of the grimly utilitarian rural graveyards cut out of the bush with no consideration for aesthetics, kilometres away from a picturesque churchyard burial ground or a leafy urban cemetery. Another work, Milner Ridge Correctional Centre, Manitoba, shows a penitentiary situated, like the cemetery, in a forest, most likely because the land there was cheap. Chain-link fences cut across the painting, functioning structurally like the train tracks in other works and separating us from what is often a warehouse for the victims of larger economic forces. The third painting, and the one most anomalous in style and subject, is the one that gives the exhibition its title: Undergrowth. Here, in a lushly painted forest that encompasses the entire canvas, we see a tiny encampment; a small figure with a backpack is looking towards us as he walks away. A little blue tent is camouflaged by a green tarp, suggesting that the man might be hiding in the woods, a refugee from some economic catastrophe. We see a similar figure in Abandoned Railway Spur, wearing a backpack and a ball cap, but that figure is rendered in less detail and does not invite the same kind of connection. In Undergrowth we have the most realistically rendered human figure in the exhibition, in the painting that least evokes the “naïve” aesthetic we see elsewhere, in the most natural setting. The contrast with the rest of the work is purposeful.
One of the key features of Dunford’s aesthetic is the elevated perspective that most of the paintings employ; not a high enough angle to give us the paranoid apprehension of social space that characterizes film noir (and which could have been appropriate here), and not accurately enough rendered to give us the sense of mastery of space that classical landscape painting offers. The perspective is often a bit wonky, as if the painter were unable to bring things into alignment, or to bring the scene fully into control. In some of the paintings, the angle and subject matter evoke the sensation of looking down at a child’s model train set. The classic toy of nostalgia, the model train offered a multilayered fantasy of meaning and control that was always rooted in an earlier era, involving perfect little settlements nestled in perfect miniature landscapes, all brought to life by an electric train moving through it. In Dunford’s paintings, things have gone seriously downhill; the tracks are no longer passable, or the trains are crossing dark or apocalyptic landscapes.
It is in the slightly skewed, dominant and unstable perspective where the style comes closest to capturing the psychological terrain of deindustrialization: the loss of identity that comes with the loss of jobs and community and a solid sense of place. In the funeral painting, we see eight shapeless figures distanced from each other in space, evoking the same feeling of disconnection or disorientation registered in the other paintings. This is the only work to include more than a solitary person: we see here a rendering of a deindustrialized society in miniature, mourning more than just the loss of one of its members. Their hands and their faces are indicated in most cases by little more than blobs of paint, as if the losses were rendering their identities and hence their bodies less stable and defined. It is thus perhaps not accidental that the only figure imbued with personality and agency is the man in Undergrowth, who has at least temporarily escaped to the forest.
By contrast, the visual objects that are most crisply painted are the trains, which glide through the landscapes untouched by the environmental and economic devastation they represent. Two paintings, Train in Bushfire and After a Fire, hang side by side in the exhibition, and reinforce this disconnectedness from their environment by having the trains sit in almost exactly the same place and at exactly the same angle in their respective pictures: the trains, like transnational capitalism, keep going, regardless of what they’re passing through, unconcerned with what they leave behind. ❚
“Undergrowth” was exhibited at Norberg Hall, Calgary, from September 10, 2021, to October 9, 2021.
Jim Ellis is a professor of English and director of the Calgary Institute for the Humanities at the University of Calgary. He has written widely on literature, art and film.