Painted Lives & Shifting Landscapes|
by Richard Tetrault (Illustrator)
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by Olga Stein
In November, 2003, a twenty-five-year-retrospective of Richard Tetrault's art was held at Vancouver's Interurban Arts Centre, located at the intersection of Carrall and Hastings Street. Tetrault, a painter, muralist and printmaker, is an artist of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He lives and practices his art there (and has been involved in urban renewal projects from the start of his career); but more importantly, he draws his inspiration from its downtrodden residents, its urban squalor, its mixture of desperation and tenacity, decay and renewal. Tetrault is an activist to his core. He uses the rawness of the neighbourhood's everyday life to articulate the ideals of empathy and solidarity; he paints murals to bring attention to the predicament of the residents who are disenfranchised by poverty, physical disability, and political neglect. At the same time, his projects beautify otherwise ugly streetscapes, and provide moral support to a community down on its luck.
Pamela Fairfield, who has contributed a biographical section to the book entitled "Painted Lives and Shifting Landscapes", describes the artistic culture that shaped Tetrault's work:
"The Latin American painting tradition is an unmistakable influence in Richard Tetrault's ability to depict, simultaneously, both the strength and the struggles of the people of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Highly effected by his travels in Mexico, Richard's key inspiration comes from the works of JosT Orozco and Diego Rivera. Awed by the beauty, socio-political complexity, and monolithic size of works like Rivera's Political Ideal of the Mexican People, Richard felt the need to bring the mural tradition further up the West Coast to Vancouver . . . The medium of the mural, developed in North America by Rivera, was a form of social protest and free speech for the people of Mexico. Rivera felt that the people had lost their cultural heritage as a result of Spanish colonization and needed to renew their roots and revive their indigenous culture. His prolific production . . . started an essential public art movement that revolutionized the art world in Mexico and the south-western United States."
Many of the Mexican muralists concerned themselves with the difficulties faced by the region's indigenous peoples in modern urban settings. Likewise, figures of native descent, as well as aspects of North American native peoples' traditions play symbolic roles in the narratives of Tetrault's art. The clever crow, a character in both Aesop's Fables and native mythology, appears often in various guises. It is a natural survivor, capable of finding refuge in the least hospitable of habitats. Survival is harder for the human animal, according to Tetrault. His human subjects are generally portrayed in an uneasy relationship with the urban environment. This unnatural environment is either impersonal, work-driven and uncongenial, or downright cruel.
Patrick Montgomery provides one of the more informative chapters on Tetrault's craft. In "Impressions of the City" Montgomery discusses printmaking, its historical origins and evolution as a means of conveying scenes of religious and historic significance, and later-given the nature of the process, and the textural effect of wood block prints-as a way or recording disturbing social and political events (for example, the German Expressionists, whose prints inspired Tetrault, "addressed themes of worker revolts, social struggles, and the atrocities of war").
Richard Tetrault, Montgomery informs us, was trained at the Vancouver School of Art from 1962 to 1979. He is well versed in art history and the various modern, politically-inspired art movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. His own art has incorporated elements from Analytical Cubism ("typified by Pablo Picasso), Dadaism and the non-representational Constructivism. Pop Art-which grew out of Dadaism and Minimalism (itself closely linked to Constructivism)-is characterized by, among other things, bold colours and graphics, and is also easily detected as an influence on Tetrault. Yet the stylistic components relate only a fraction of the story. Tetrault brings a savvy and vision to his paintings, murals and prints that makes them entirely his own. The art is one hundred percent Tetrault and worthy of a connoisseur's attention.