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John Noel Chandler

Sources are Resources: Greg Curnoe's Objects, Objectives and Objections

Isaacs Gallery, January 23-February 13 [1973]

artscanada #176/ 177, February - March 1973.
[ 947 words ]


Although by no means all of Greg Curnoe's art results in objects, his current exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery presents an incredibly large range of his projects and work. Though it has often been remarked that his work has certain affinities with British Pop art, what has generally been overlooked is that Curnoe has been doing conceptual art and process art since before these terms were coined.

A painted construction, similar to those he exhibited last year, of a window and the view beyond has a speaker attached which emits the sounds of his typewriter when he sat before this window and typed a description of what he saw. A letter he sent to himself from Pelee Island post office, Ontario, the southernmost post office in Canada to Alert, N.W.T., the northernmost post office in Canada was returned to London stamped 'unknown'. His proposal for a wall mural which was to have anti-American slogans painted in his usual sans serif letters was mounted with his documentation of the fact that one of the jurors, one of the winners, and the crew that executed the murals were all Americans. Charting, measuring, mapping, documenting, timing have been among his concerns at least since the Coke Book and other stamped-letter journals. Here were a set of irregularly shaped pieces of leather (hanging from plastic and metal skirt hangers) stamped with the distances between London places and another set recorded the time intervals of events, again stamped but this time with red ink.

There was a bicycle wheel with a handle and stand, used for measuring distances while walking — a kinetic sculpture, a made readymade recalling Duchamp but asserting process as well. Three wonderful bicycle cutouts, painted in Curnoe colours. One that was on an artscanada cover [Oct/ Nov 1972] but minus the brick wall. Another with a self portrait of the artist astride and one of his children riding behind. This one had affixed to the wheels two Plexiglas covered texts describing the transformations of the bike. It seems he has had this bike for years, replacing parts from time to time till only the brakes and a gear remained of the original bike. Continuity, transformation and renewal. Continuing identity of a thing (like a person) though nothing of the original remains. Continuity is the identity. You cannot and you can step into the same river, ride the same bike, be the same person. The third bike cutout was made as though seen from head (and tail) on. Extremely foreshortened, it was less than an inch thick from front to back and looked very much like a pogo-stick: the most delightful object in the show and not the least profound.

And there were watercolours of Canadian landscapes, more than reminiscent of the Group of Seven, painted on loose-leaf graph paper and mounted in Plexiglas sandwiches — brightly coloured backs and clear fronts — some of them done while travelling through Quebec, others of London and his backyard. Several of the watercolours and the bikes were marked sold. I asked him how he could bear to part with the bikes, and he said that was the arrangement he had with his wife, and added that now he could afford to buy a new bike, one that he is having made for him here in Toronto.

Gertrude Stein's advice to a young writer: 'Don't think so much about your wife and child being dependent upon your work. Try to think of your work as being dependent upon your wife and child, for it will be if it really comes from you, and if it doesn't come from you — the you that has the wife and child and this street and these people — then it is no use anyway and your economic problems will have nothing to do with writing because you will not be a writer at all.' Curnoe has always worked as though that advice had been given to him. Stein went on to say:

And there is one thing more. A very important thing — and I know it because I have seen it kill so many writers — is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing...How absurd it would be if you were to make up your mind that you are a biographer, a historian, or a novelist. The truth is that probably all these forms are dead because they have become forms, and you must have felt that or you would not have moved on from one to another. Well, you will go on and you will work in them, and sometime, if your work has meaning and I'm not sure that anything but a lifework has meaning, then you may discover a new form...And when one has discovered and evolved a new form, it is not the form but the fact that you are the form that is important.

I overheard at a cocktail party a young man who works at Isaacs say how ridiculous and far-fetched it was for me to have attributed so much of my own thinking about art to Curnoe's influence. If it were simply the objects he had produced, I would have to agree. But it is not. It is his manner of working as though it depended upon his people and place, and it is his relentless search for a new form which isn't already dead, and most importantly it is the fact that the form he is evolving is himself — these have been important for me.

artscanada, February/ March 1973, #176/ 177.

Text: © John Noel Chandler. All rights reserved.

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