Laine Dahlen: Master Apprentice

by Jody Farrell

Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas.

Laine Dahlen. Fall Afternoon. 1993. Oil on canvas.

Laine Dahlen is projecting slides of his landscape paintings onto a screen in the visual arts studio. Slowly, I begin to lose all sense of time. There’s something so polished, so pristine about these fields and hillsides, that for a moment I wonder if it is the work of some long-dead master I’m viewing. I’d seen a couple of Dahlen works before, but the detail and old world feel of these images throw me into another era altogether. My drive west across the Alberta border to his space in Dawson Creek, BC’s Northern Lights College has landed me back farther than just the one hour time difference.

While all of Dahlen’s landscapes are local — some near Peace River, others toward Spirit River — the paintings, given their deliberate rendering and style, could easily be taken for over a century old. Grande Prairie artist Jim Stokes, who years ago was himself inspired by a Dahlen landscape in the Prairie Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection, says the works call to mind those of 19th century painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.

Those artists’ meticulous and deliberate pieces — unlike the more direct, somewhat brash paintings that came later in the 19th century — feature layers of underpainting and carefully built-up compositions. Dahlen’s works draw from such masters’ techniques.

“His landscapes are more realist, not loose, not impressionist,” Jim remarks when, a week after the Dahlen interview, I am still humbled by what I have seen and am pressing Stokes for historical references. “They are not painterly, but solid, built up, more like those that came just before and influenced impressionism.”

Dahlen’s creative abstinence of late has him calling himself less a painter and more a teacher.  Stokes recalls his frustration at a similar comment Dahlen made at a recent arts symposium: “I just wanted to shake him when he said that …‘How can you say that?’  I thought.”

But Dahlen, who at 60 concedes to having “one foot in the nineteenth century,” maintains that truly calling oneself an artist requires constant devotion and practice.

“I am such a traditionalist. Part of me would like to see the old guild system like the seven year system in Florence, where you worked under one person,” Dahlen says.

He despairs at the seemingly dwindling practice of master techniques and realism. The excess of flat imagery coming out of our fast-paced technological world has resulted in students who, though many have a flair for animé and tattoos, show little aptitude in the studio. It’s perhaps in defiance of high-tech domination that Dahlen does not use computers and describes himself as digitally illiterate.

And yet in his single-year, eight-month course, he somehow manages to whip even the most perspective-challenged into shape. Val McMeekin, a former student and studio  assistant of Dahlen’s who went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Lethbridge, Alberta, says her only instruction in traditional technique came from him. And while she sometimes faltered under his drive for perfection, she has no regrets about apprenticing under the teacher she affectionately dubs “Master D.”

“He is a fabulous teacher and artist, very traditional. Of the artists I know, he is probably the most talented drawer and painter. I am glad my first classes were with him.”

McMeekin found Lethbridge University art instruction, in contrast, to be completely conceptual. “They do not teach the basics of painting and drawing. In many cases it doesn’t matter if one can draw these days,” she remarks.

Dahlen teaches a wide range of painting methods that include imprimatura or underpainting, glazing (painting a thin transparent layer over a pre-existing one.), scumbling (layering a broken passage of colour over an underlying colour); and also a variety of media, including collage and silkscreen. McMeekin is grateful for Dahlen’s instruction on the deliberate building-up of layers, and recalls the considerable attention he gave to colour temperature and the push-pull effect of cool and hot colours.

He is indeed fascinated with dualities and the interplay whereby elements can be both complementary and opposite. And not just the background-foreground spatial elements created in paintings, but the negatives and positives found in life itself. Several of his figurative works, while built up in the same manner as his landscapes, include an element of storytelling filled with double meanings, borrowed and reversed imagery, and elements both dark and humourous.

The Dealer, a painting Dahlen made for himself, includes an homage to Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère. To further push the intrigue in an already mysterious painting, Dahlen has flipped Manet’s barmaid’s reflection in the mirror. He painted her in a direct style, as opposed to the more traditional, built-up techniques employed in painting the coat of the man in the foreground. Another woman in the back sports a mask. “It all has to do with mirrors, what is reality, and what isn’t,” Dahlen says.

Dahlen uses the painting to encourage, even provoke his students. This work, along with his trompe l’oeil surrealist painting Mysteriarch, betrays a fondness for manipulating reality. His collage Anima, named after psychologist Carl Jung’s term for the male’s unconscious, inner feminine personality, is also rife with dualities and double-meanings.

“He most definitely has the trickster in him,” McMeekin says of her former instructor.

Still, Dahlen wishes he were “looser” in his work. Collage makes for more experimentation, allowing the “crazy and cockeyed” to reveal itself. “I am fond of it,” he says of the technique that culls from existing materials, photos, clippings, and art to create a new, assembled whole. “I’m more likely to grab two photographs that I would never have combined had I composed the image myself. Your subconscious takes over.” But even here, Dahlen will go to great lengths, adding and scraping layers of graphite in one, and lifting off images using lacquer thinner in another. “It’s still tight,” he says of his style.

By the end of the conversation, which has spanned several hours if not centuries, Dahlen is toying with the idea of retirement. He’d been vague earlier, saying that a rumour had circulated last year —“perhaps a wishful one”— following a celebration of his 30-year anniversary as a teacher. He spoke of a “hunger” for his kind of instruction, and wondered who might give it if he were to leave. Now however, having talked at length about those many years of coaxing creativity out of others, and nodding to some drawings he’s made of a would-be studio, Dahlen appears to be warming up to his own creative drive.

“I’m an old bugger,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “Maybe it’s time.”

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