Valerie Palmer

Valerie Palmer, "Clouds", 1991, oil on linen, 50.5 by 44.5 in. Anonymous gift, 2015. Photo: Tom Moore

Valerie Palmer
Clouds, 1991
Oil on linen
50.5 by 44.5 in.
Anonymous gift, 2015

Valerie Palmer is a Canadian painter based out of Michipicoten Bay, North of Lake Superior. Palmer was born in Toronto in 1950 and as a child she summered with her family at the Lake of Bays in Muskoka, where she first began painting in oils with her father. After completing her BFA at the University of Manitoba, she moved north of Lake Superior where she continues to reside. A realist painter, Palmer works directly from local models, either in her studio or outside. The first major mid-career survey of Palmer’s work was in 2000, organized by Michael Burtch, Director of the Art Gallery of Algoma, travelling to four public galleries in Ontario. She is represented by the Loch Gallery, Toronto and her work is held in numerous private and public collections, including the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick; the Art Gallery of Algoma, Saulte Ste. Marie; and the Art Gallery of Sudbury.
Clouds (1991) is an oil painting of two figures, one female and one male, suggestive of a brother and sister at a family cottage north of Lake Superior. They are posed in a doorway, with the girl standing outside and the younger boy inside. The interior scene is stark and simple, the linear perspective slightly skewed with the table appearing lower than it would in life and the light from the outdoors multidirectional on the tiled floor. By contrast, the exterior scene is richly detailed, the paper birch trunk finely nuanced and the bare branches of the trees in the background silhouetted against the cloudy sky. Like Alex Colville, the figures are evenly lit and seem to glow of their own accord. Their bodies are turned towards each other, but their gazes are shuttered and introspective. Both are in transition between childhood and adulthood: the boy’s features are hardening from the soft contours of childhood into the more chiseled lines of adolescence, while the girl’s figure is softening into feminine curves. Throughout her career, Palmer has used signs and symbols borrowed from Renaissance paintings as narrative cues in her paintings. In Clouds, a small toy horse on wheels is abandoned on the table near the boy, suggestive of the end of childhood.
Palmer focuses on the psychological space the figures inhabit, accentuated by the painting’s strange perspective and the layering of a flattened interior over a deep, rich exterior scene. Additionally, it alludes to the specter of early sexuality in its self-aware, challenging subjects, popular themes in photography at roughly the same time as this painting’s creation. Here, the subjects bring to mind Sally Mann’s treatment of her three children in Immediate Family (1984-1991). In the bathing attire and the near-Renaissance treatment of the figures, it echoes Rineke Dijkstra’s Bathing Portraits (1992-2002).