Painting en plein air first developed as an alternative to the traditional style of painting, which relied on academic rules to impose structure on natural forms. In contrast, plein air is meant to represent the landscape in its natural state, or as one sees it. This theme of rejecting artificial rules and boundaries is apparent in the paintings of plein air artist Alfred G. Villeneuve. In his work, trees and lakes stand unadulterated and independent of man-made restraints, yet are filled with a logical order, strength and grace. He seems to suggest that there is an alternative to mankind’s perspective that it is necessary to create order by dividing the world into categories and imposing rules to restrict the freedom of both humans and the natural world. With his powerful images, Villeneuve calls attention to environmental issues like the exploitation of forests for economic gain.
Villeneuve favours wide open spaces, unencumbered and free, which celebrate freedom from restraint. Like the 19th century plein air painters who gave rise to Impressionism, Villeneuve carefully balances the elements of landscape. Sky and water have a strong presence on the canvas, existing in flux but also in equilibrium. The precision of his technique belies his self-taught origins. At times, his work is reminiscent of George-Pierre Seurat’s pointillism (like in Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur), as strokes are applied painstakingly to create a compelling record of color and light, which he accomplishes in September Gale-Revisited, Lake Ontario, Toronto and Winter Glint January Morn- Near Sand Lake Gate, Algonquin Park.
However, Villeneuve , whose background is Kashubian Polish, Algonkian, and French, has developed his own style of painting, which, according to his website, is referred to as “Algonkin Mosaic.” It is no coincidence that his paintings prominently feature rivers and lakes as Villeneuve has roots in parts of the world known for beautiful aquatic scenery. Villeneuve’s love of Algonquin Park is apparent in compositions like July Sunset Tea Lake, Algonquin Park. In a bold use of color, the canvas is flooded with blue and pink, and the sky is only prevented from merging with water by a thin margin of land. This landscape is a living, breathing being, as the reflected sky shimmers in the water. We get a sense of nature as an active creator. It is as though nature were a wise steward, capably maintaining this remarkable landscape. It is a mosaic where tiles of simple color blend in the eye of the viewer into a compelling whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. A single tree shoots across the canvas, providing a sense of perspective on the enormity of the landscape.
As many of Villeneuve’s images feature reflections, it is sometimes hard to separate the boundaries between sky, earth, and water. Where does tree end and water begin? In effect, there is a sense of freedom and fluid movement, as in Even In Quietest Moments No. 2. This is nature, the artist, creating a copy of itself through the reflection. In this painting, as the trees are reflected in the lake, each is enriched by the existence of the other. There is no boundary between lake and tree. Perhaps this is a comment on how the micro-systems of nature are interconnected. If the natural world can exist without boundaries, then perhaps the categories constructed by them human realm, be they based on perceived race, gender, class, or any other such categorization, are superficial and reductionist. Villeneuve’s images create an atmosphere of stillness and a sublime sense that humanity is dwarfed by nature’s spirit. They encourage the viewer to pause and consider the existentialist questions imbedded in nature.
Villeneuve’s Standing Against Saw – Plunder Never Sleeps East Algonquin Park is likewise humbling and majestic, though more sombre in mood. This painting is unlike most of Villeneuve’s recent works, where the landscape is pristine, rich and untouched by exploitation. Here, signs of human activity are apparent. The trees are bold and tall, but also solitary, stark, and thinly branched. The eye is drawn to the unnatural jagged empty spaces left behind by logging companies: a single conifer defiantly stands in the middle. Although elements of nature are again placed in an active role, it is a defensive or protective stance rather than a creative one. There is a sense of tension. With this work, the artist draws attention to the plunder of natural parks and possibly the decimation of natural forests around the world. Though Canada is known for its ancient natural forests, it also leads the world in the destruction of these natural habitats. Villeneuve suggests that this willful plunder threatens natural ecosystems and makes the world around us vulnerable.
The oeuvre that Villeneuve has put together has a depth that reaches beyond the aesthetic appeal that draws the viewer into the work. One might be tempted to frame his work as an offshoot of Impressionism, or nature art, and though the work certainly echoes such genres, it steadfastly defies categories, much as the content serves to challenge categories by highlighting the way in which all elements of nature are interrelated and bleed into each other. Villeneuve positions nature as a kind of sublime sage that can offer humanity a template for social and cultural equilibrium. Nature, however, is as delicate as it is majestic, and as Standing Against Saw – Plunder Never Sleeps East Algonquin Park demonstrates, humanity and nature must find a path to a symbiotic remediation or confront a stark and depressing future.