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'Wilf Perreault: In the Alley / Dans la Ruelle'

“Wilf Perreault: In the Alley / Dans la Ruelle”

By Wilf Perreault and Timothy Long, edited by Dave Margoshes

Coteau Books

The artistic heritage of Canada, our nearest international neighbor, is diverse and unique. Its historic trajectory occasionally resembles the growth and development of art in the U.S. (European and indigenous); yet, few Americans claim any knowledge of Canadian art. Pick up a copy of “Wilf Perreault: In the Alley / Dans la Ruelle” and allow yourself to change that situation.

This handsome bilingual (English/French) volume, beautifully designed and printed, captures the life’s work of a mature Saskatchewan artist of francophone origin. There are 12 contributors, testimony to the level of appreciation for Perreault’s work in Canada. Poets share their own work inspired by Perreault’s art. One essayist delves into Perreault’s craft processes (he is a master of the unforgiving watercolor medium). Other essays trace his biography. All are highly readable.

Perreault’s work rewards the casual observer of art with its apparent accessibility, wealth of detail and pungent colors. For the serious art aficionado, the work prompts contemplation of topics ranging from the true character of “national” art to pinning down the differences between realism and abstraction.

Perreault has spent the overwhelming majority of his life in Saskatchewan, Canada, where he received nearly all of his art training. He has lived a workmanlike life with little drama. Truth be told, this is not among the geographic regions of Canada best known for art, but Perreault has carved out a niche, earning both popular affection and critical acclaim throughout Canada.

Among other subjects, Perreault specializes in depicting urban and suburban alleys. His style is meticulous, occasionally recalling European pointillism or at other times the polished fairytale “realism” of such American artists as Maxfield Parrish. Turn another page and the images recall the melancholy of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich or lush children’s book illustrations of a century ago. This is not to say that his work emulates these artists’ work; Perreault’s style is distinctive and personal, entirely his own.

Occasionally, the warmly glowing windows of small houses may seem a bit folksy. Conversely, the inclusion of such seemingly random motifs as the Eiffel Tower or armed sentinels that exist only as shadows render the work strangely surreal. Perreault’s usually unpeopled views are not narrative illustrations; they are records of emotion, homage to a home he clearly loves deeply.

His frequent return to particular subjects suggests serious lifelong aesthetic study. His intense focus on alleys — giving the book its title — conjures the paradoxical sense of “group privacy” that exists in residential neighborhoods that have alleys, a commons that those of us who lack alleys no longer enjoy. While the darkness of Canadian winters looms frequently in Perreault’s work, the viewer searches in vain for anything sinister or foreboding, even in the face of the chill and apparent loneliness of some of his works. Instead, one finds a quiet, snug beauty that expertly avoids cliche. “Wilf Perreault: In the Alley / Dans la Ruelle” is a fine, highly recommended introduction to one of Canada’s most charming artists.

Robyn G. Peterson has been executive director at the Yellowstone Art Museum since 2006. Previously she held curatorial and administrative positions at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding, Calif., and at the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York, where she pursued special interests in vintage photography, ecological art, and the art of the American West.