Let’s start by stating the obvious: There are few other artists that bear the same stature and influence in London’s contemporary art scene as Greg Curnoe. His work has been exhibited in most of Canada’s major galleries and held in the collections of the same. He was a hard working community builder of arts groups, from Region Gallery and Region Magazine in the 60s to the current Forest City Gallery. He co-organized CARFAC, a collective advocating for artists’ rights. He also had a hand, or kazoo, in forming the Nihilist Spasm Band (okay, nobody’s perfect.)
For all of that reputation, I’ve got to admit that the few works from his oeuvre I’d encountered over the years never made much of a personal impact, leaving me feeling a tad guilty. And hey, I even used to be a touring bike enthusiast. What was I missing? And so it pricked up my ears when a friend gave her quick take on a survey of Greg Curnoe’s early work presently on display at Michael Gibson Gallery, describing it as “sexually exciting.” What’s that, Curnoe, a purveyor of the erotic?
Well, if this exhibit doesn’t leave you physically titillated, Greg Curnoe ’61-65 is bound to reveal the creative energy of this provocative artist’s early years and his seminal role in the local scene. It’s a show that also exposes what I’ve been missing outside of the popular bicycle pieces.
The main revelation here is that Curnoe was a superb colourist. In works like Marg at Flamingo Manor and For Eliz, Hugh, Murray & Marsden we get a riot of hot colour proclaiming his own version of the then burgeoning pop art aesthetic.
Three Pieces, three billboard-like freestanding panels painted front and back is a sensual, if not erotic, tour-de-force. The reclining figures on the front side display his command of compositional forms, with taut lines and vibrant colour. As with Sheila’s Legs I-IV, Curnoe delves into influences from comic book style to late-Matisse mastery of form, forging his own pop hybrid. The backside of Three Pieces serves up a whimsical tribute to the Rolling Stones, but it’s an effective nod to the sexual energy of mid 60s culture. (In a later piece, It, Curnoe would acknowledge a complaint of objectification in these nudes by the model, his wife Sheila, by putting her very words in the letter text painting: “It just seems odd to me that all of the paintings of me are nudes — and there’s nothing personal about them at all . . .”) Apparently on public display for the first time, Three Pieces is a revelation from his early work that is not to be missed.
Pointedly, Curnoe did not identify his aesthetic vision with the pop art movement for a few important reasons surrounding his working philosophy. He felt an artist should primarily be absorbed in the “everyday stuff “ wherever that should find you, and following the style trends in the power centres of art, New York, or that other London, perhaps meant that you were more of a marketer than an artist.
George Bowering, in The Moustache, Memories of Greg Curnoe, cheekily teased Curnoe on this: “Greg didn’t like it when he was called a pop artist. I think it was mainly because in the 60s the pop artists were USAmerican. It was a USAmerican phenomenon and USAmerican name. Greg said he was interested in neglected Canadian details and the stuff that was around him in his life. The pop artists were after the attention of the fickle New York gallery shoppers. He was not pop and he was not op, the other buzzword in newspapers of the time. To get him mad I used to call him pop. Jeez, he would say, and rub his nose with his knuckles. What kind of artist are you then? I would ask. I’m a London artist, he would say, every time.”
Gibson has done a consummate job in staging this exhibition, illuminating the artist’s early years through various media presentations. The back room of the gallery is devoted to a recreation of Curnoe’s workspace fitted with some of his personal belongings. Several pieces on the wall here allow you to get inside the protean headspace of the artist — neo-Dadaist assemblages from found objects like pipes and spindles, and my fave, collages from bus transfers and rubber stamps, which Murray Favro fondly recalls Curnoe composing while entertaining guests in his studio. Online http://gibsongallery.com/
“I think that his regionalism went far beyond London. What he really was interested in was authentic local culture, wherever it happened to be,” notes former Curnoe curator Judith Rodger in the doc. To be sure, at times Curnoe’s regionalism meant anti-American political activism: “Close the 49th Parallel” is stamped on the crossbar of his emblematic bicycles. But that protectionist view was in accord with how he felt an artist should find one’s proper muse and identity.
In the essay Greg Curnoe and the New Jerusalem the artist’s friend (and Yodeller editor) Herman Goodden elaborates: “For Greg Curnoe, there was no such thing as a cultural backwater. Wherever an artist happened to live was fine. In fact there was more potential for a really original vision to flourish away from the usual centres. A big watercolour from ’88 featured a pair of sunglasses, a guidebook and a touristy t-shirt floating in the air over Lake Huron. On the front of the shirt were printed four place names of international importance — London, Paris, Rome and Grand Bend. Yes, it was a joke but yes, he meant it too. The operational factor in art and life is the consciousness of the perceiver: anywhere on planet Earth can serve as the doorway to experience and truth.”
It’s fair to say that this may be the most important aspect of Curnoe’s legacy. In a country that has had to contend with the gravitational pull of the cultural black hole to the south, it’s more than an accomplishment to stake a flag in your home town, and show that it can all be done from here. For all our celebrated creative talent — the J-Biebers, Careys, Camerons that have been sucked south — well, perhaps that is where they belong. The inspirational message from Curnoe’s exemplary career is that the deeper calling of the artist is to mine the spirit in the stuff around them in their own backyard.
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