My oldest brother Dave was tooling around in our parents’ car one autumn night in the mid ‘60s when he drove down Weston Street and pointed out a rather boxy, flat-roofed house to me. “That’s where Greg Curnoe lives,” he said. “It used to be a factory.”
“Who’s Greg Curnoe?” I asked in my ignorance which was profoundly deep and total. I might’ve been 14 years old.
“He’s an artist,” said Dave, and a whole series of cosmic tumblers fell into place in my skull and the universe suddenly became more interesting. This was the first time I’d heard of an artist who wasn’t dead or who didn’t live so far away that I’d probably never get to see his house. The implications of this were staggering: “It can happen here,” I thought. “It can happen now.”
I hadn’t met the man yet and grown to like and admire him as much as I would. I had yet to knowingly clap eyes on a single work he’d created. But this very attractive and empowering idea that art could be and was being made here was an encouragement – indeed, a kind of epiphany – that Curnoe provided and continues to provide nearly a quarter century after his death for more London artists of all kinds than we will ever be able to enumerate.
His wife Sheila told me of her first meeting with Greg one afternoon in 1965 at his third floor, King Street studio. “Here was this strange character wearing braces and pants that were too short and too tight, heavy work boots and this big moustache standing in the middle of this mess . . . these colours and images . . . and I looked at the room and it was . . . this is what I wanted to do! Ever since I was 15, I’d thought I was going to be an artist. Didn’t we all? But this guy was different. He was doing it.”
Greg Curnoe’s appeal was exactly that uncomplicated. At the snooty, pedigreed cat show of modern art (Should I be liking this artist’s work? Should I appear to be liking this artist’s work?) Curnoe was the guileless, bounding mongrel, the cheerful mutt, who upset all the display tables and tangled up the ankles of the judges with his leash and won every heart in the room. Regulations and usual rules of procedure be damned. He stood his ground in the city he loved even if it wasn’t a recognized art centre, made the body of work which was his to create and revolutionized everybody’s perspective in the process.
It is no exaggeration to say that from here on in, the art of our region will be looked at in terms of pre and post-Curnoe, He wasn’t the only artist who took part in the regionalist explosion of the 1960’s but all of the critics (from the Curnoe-besotted art historian Dennis Reid to the more grudging and sometimes prickly Nancy Poole) point to Curnoe as that movement’s central and defining figure, the sin qua non and rallying point of an entire scene. Pre-Curnoe the art of our region – even something as locally celebrated as Paul Peel’s painting of the old Covent Garden Market – conformed to imported, European traditions. (And Peel had to win acceptance in France before Canadians, let alone Londoners, would acknowledge his genius.) Post-Curnoe, the onus is on our artists to go digging in a local garden and come up with our own indigenous bones. Post-Curnoe, our artists can take encouragement from the victory which Curnoe won: if they can make their work interesting and fresh enough, then the world and its media, even horrible old TIME magazine, will come to London, Ontario.
Though vastly more prolific than his good friend and colleague Jack Chambers, there is much less consensus about which of Curnoe’s works are the masterpieces. Long time Curnoe friend and Yodeller columnist Bob McKenzie told me, “It’s hard to think of Greg’s work one at a time. When you think of the whole body of work, it all seems to relate together.”
No small part of the glue that held it all together was the personality of the man himself which suffuses everything he created – not in a particularly egotistical way (though some critics mistook it for that) – but in a way that directly reflected his personal interests and preoccupations. As Ross Woodman told me in our last interview a couple of months before his death, “Greg was a great stylist. He had flair. And I admire a man who could dress the way he painted as if he were dressing himself up for his paintings. He was so identified. It’s not that you have to see all of Greg’s paintings. You have to see all of Greg. The more familiar I became with his work by frequent viewings of it, the more engaged I became with its social and political history which was Greg’s own history.”
The work he produced in the 1960’s when he enjoyed his greatest celebrity as the wild child from the boondocks had verve and impudence but wasn’t a patch in terms of craftsmanship and realization on the work of his maturity. A case can be made that his early work was overpraised and that from the mid ‘70s on, he was underestimated. But in flush times or skint, he never became protective of his turf. Throughout his career Curnoe repeatedly did what he could to – if not push away, exactly – at least expand the range of fame’s spotlight so that its warmth and glow fell upon other practitioners as well.
Writer Stan Dragland paid him sweet tribute when he was quoted in a memorial feature in Canadian Art saying, “The Nihilist Spasm Band, I must say, made awful music that cured me for years of wanting to hear any more like it. Yet from such things I came to know that I could live and work in London. In all the years I’ve been here, Greg laboured to make an art community, trying to fold people into it.”
In 1967 Pierre Theberge of The National Gallery approached Curnoe and Jack Chambers with the offer of a two man show that would tour the country, establishing them both at the national, even international level. It is impossible to exaggerate the generosity and courage of what Curnoe did next. He said, yes, in principle, but couldn’t we open up the show beyond just me and Jack? Let’s call it ‘The Heart of London’ and include the work of a bunch of other artists who are also working here.
And so it came to be and John Boyle, Murray Favro, Ron Martin, Beverly Lambert Kelly, David and Royden Rabinovitch, Walter Redinger, Tony Urquhart and Ed Zelenak received national exposure which gave all of their careers a boost. The show also vindicated what Curnoe always believed: encourage artists to work where they are and wonderful things will happen. It is because of that generosity of spirit that 23 years after his death, Greg Curnoe is with us still.
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