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New Arts Centre show reveals power of abstraction and experience

Cindy Riach's Journey Towards Abstraction and Agnete Newman's During My Life are at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre until June 18.
A. Cindy Riach and Agnete Newman
Cindy Riach and Agnete Newman at the opening reception of Journey Towards Abstraction and During My Life at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre.

Exhibitions by two local artists at Sechelt’s Sunshine Coast Arts Centre lie at the junction of two painterly paths: experience-inspired realism and abstract journeys into the intimacy of imagination.  

Cindy Riach, a longtime professor at Ontario’s McMaster University before her retirement to the Sunshine Coast, opened her show Journey Towards Abstraction at a public reception on May 20 in conjunction with During My Life, a collection of paintings by multidisciplinary artist Agnete Newman.  

Newman was born in Denmark exactly 91 years before the opening reception, precipitating a zealous rendition of Happy Birthday to You by the more than 40 admirers in attendance. 

In Riach’s Journey Towards Abstraction, the painter sublimates her academic background in kinesiology into studies of subtle motion. The lines of commercial fishing vessels (rendered during a plein air painting trip to Alert Bay) are diffuse, suggesting gentle undulations at berth.  

In oil-on-canvas works like White Dinghy and MV23826, the haziness of the keels releases the viewer’s eye to fall toward the crisp waterline. There, in the reflection of traditional West Coast patinas, abstract patterns point to the next step of Riach’s artistic progression. 

“When you’re painting from reality, then you paint what you see,” Riach said. “The muse is coming from the outside. But when you’re doing abstracts, there’s no guidance from the exterior.” 

Riach’s marina scenes lead seamlessly into her abstract works, where the suggestion of bright-hued hulls dissolve into textured, refractory atmospheres. She has introduced a cold wax technique to her work, in which a paste is added to oil paint as a thickening agent. Using a pallet knife, she carves textures into the substrate, mimicking paint-flecked gunwales. 

“I think that’s [abstracts] where the growth is,” Riach said. “I think I tried really the hardest I could to try to capture reality and what was there. But now I’m kind of giving myself permission to not follow something else but to do the direction from inside of me.” 

Agnete Newman also finds inspiration in B.C. landscapes and marine settings. The painter and ceramics artist was formally trained in design at Copenhagen’s School of Arts and Crafts before immigrating to Canada in 1951.  

A sailing trip around Haida Gwaii is embodied in her depiction of the storm-heavy sky above Hecate Strait. Local jaunts inspired the tall grasses of Wind Blowing and breeze-addled seas in Off the Highway, near Powell River.  

Examples of her ceramic works — a hand-thrown vase ringed in fleurons, a slumped cross and orb — sit alongside enigmatic portraits, many depicting human figures with their backs turned to the viewer, lit by shards of sunlight.  

In the painting No Destination, a parade of silhouettes trek a roadway toward an ambiguous horizon. In it, and in the russet walkers of the diptych Leaving and Coming, Newman sees progression and purpose, echoes of sojourners in search of opportunity. 

“Everybody is looking for something,” she said. “I have always been interested in history, the lives of women, and the movement of people. “ 

One of her most recent works, Protect the Forest, Protect the Globe, is a collage in which stark tree limbs stretch skyward, making a gesture of surrender — or a caress. For Newman, the theme of surmounting challenges, whether ecological or historical, is deeply personal. 

“All I can say is when I do any of this art, I’m in it,” Newman said. “If I had painted for money, I wouldn’t have had a lot. You have to paint for what’s inside you. And that’s hard sometimes. Life hasn’t been that easy, but you learn to overcome things. “ 

Journey Towards Abstraction and During My Life remain at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre until June 18.