The first thing that stands out in Tristram Lansdowne’s paintings is the artist’s rare degree of technical ability. The young Lansdowne began painting seaside pulchritude in his hometown of Victoria, BC, before moving to Toronto to attend OCAD, from which he graduated in 2007 . Shortly afterwards, Landsdowne set up in a studio in Toronto with four friends from art school.
The elements of fantasy within Landsdowne’s rigidly representational watercolours started with a vision of the Toronto skyline pulled out of the earth to reveal botanical roots. The majority of his work exhibited to date is created in this conceptual vein, rendering diverse organic realities beneath realistic vignettes of urban fringe. He shows us stark samples of the urban backdrop: abandoned boarded-up houses and broken down buildings spotted with graffiti.
Lansdowne insists that these pieces are not meant to be preachy one liners about urban decay or environmental devastation. Instead, the multiple histories evident from the visible layers of use and misuse are what lead him to focus on these more derelict parts of town. He endeavors to “have some sort of conversation with the buildings [I see] via this fictional element.” He aptly compares his work to the somewhat surreal yet vividly realistic work of the New Leipzig painters, whose art has brought Germany back into the forefront of the world of contemporary art criticism and collecting in recent years.
These examinations of downtown deterioration caused Landsdowne to begin musing on the greater theories of urban planning that precipitated their existence. Working from a book garnered from a garage sale, Programs and Manifestos of 20th Century Architecture, he has begun creating full panoramas based on overly optimistic obsolete plans for actualizing utopias. While trying to show a beauty he describes as “so poetic it becomes crushed under the weight of it’s own absurdity,” Lansdowne struggles not to seem flippant or ironic.
The graffiti style moniker on his web-site is misleading, as this artist has little interest in being perceived as “cool.” At first glance, his work may appear simply to be savvy contemporary landscapes composed by a traditionally trained painter. Lansdowne’s tragic gaze into the past stares beyond tradition or some nostalgic interest in aesthetic or architectural theory. Embedded in his work is an unforeseen pathos, which he conveys with a unique brand of poetic articulation and smooth urgency.
Quite possibly, this focus on the past is a sample of a burgeoning conceptual theme in an upcoming generation of artists. For Lansdowne, he sees looking to the past as his only option. To him, the idea of a linear path to a bright future seems comically implausible. He is not looking to romanticize previous ideas of brighter futures, but is trying to steer away from presenting nightmarish futures devised in the mind of a child raised in the cold war era. The cognizance that maybe a brighter future was never available- even to the optimists of the past- is Lansdowne’s dispiriting message of consolation.