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Terrence Heath

The Trojan Bicycle: Greg Curnoe's "Life & Stuff" (2001)
The Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2001

BorderCrossings, Volume 20 #2, May 2001.
[ 970 words ]


And then I realized that it wasn't enough to be real, but that you had to be amusing.
— Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist

The exhibition, Curnoe: Life & Stuff, which opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on March 15, marks the establishment of a research centre for the study of Greg Curnoe's life and work. The exhibition itself is based entirely on the large collection of Curnoe's work that the AGO now owns — over 160 works and extensive memorabilia from his studio in London, Ontario. This exhibition is not, therefore, a retrospective in the sense of drawing on the full artistic output of the artist. Many of Curnoe's best-known works are not included. It is a retrospective nevertheless, giving a high-quality, comprehensive experience of his life and work. The opening for members and special guests was an extraordinary affair. The AGO's Walker Court was packed; John Ralston Saul gave the key address, and the room overflowed with praise for Curnoe; and stories, stories, stories of his life, and of happenings (both the 1960s kind and the personal kind). Greg would have loved it.

It is a fine exhibition, well installed, well labeled and documented, and judging by my four separate visits, very well attended. The catalogue is a 200 plus page, hardcover tome in full colour, including essays by Sarah Milroy and Dennis Reid and a full, detailed chronology and bibliography by Judith Rodger. Nor have Curnoe's cohorts in London, Ontario been overlooked. The halls leading to the gallery that houses the exhibition include works by Murray Favro, John Boyle, Tony Urquhart, and others, along with a series of photographs of the people who impinged on Curnoe's life by Don Vincent. All together a major tribute to a major artist.

Why dwell so fulsomely on the details of this event? I think because so many things about it astonished me. Initially I have to admit a certain self-satisfaction in seeing regionalism, which I have often argued is the real nature of Canadian art, recognized and celebrated as the essential artistic experience of this northern, thinly populated, capital-less country. And I am not alone in this. In the late sixties and seventies, artists and writers from coast to coast embraced the belief that art can only be made out of the specifics of life, place and time. Curnoe was one of many, but he was a leader and one of the strongest voices. This has to do with the title of this review, it was a bit of a shock to realize that the Hellens were inside Troy. There they were, the young professionals of three decades ago who took the daring step of supporting the seemingly anti-art madness of the new regionalists — Dennis Reid, Pierre Théberge, Matthew Teitelbaum. They were not alone but they are currently the power figures in the largest galleries in Canada.

Third, now that the acrimony and, yes, scandals of their attacks on imperialistic cultural hegemonies of any kind, the position that these regional artists and writers took from the beginning, have finally been recognized. It was not that they rejected all art made in what are called 'art centres' per se, but that they rejected the right of any person or group to prescribe what art should be. They saw the American prescriptions dominating the galleries, schools and the media, and therefore also curtailing their opportunities to make art and survive as artists. Hence, the waves of anti-Americanism that swept through the regional studios. They sought out and found, in their own lives and localities, the stuff of their art; and they didn't want anyone telling them to make things that looked as if they had been made in New York. The Trojan 'horse' was inside the walls and it was full of deadpan humour, irreverence and raised fingers; intense insouciance and passionate nationalism.

And yet, a corrective reflection needs to be made. Canada, being Canada, has trouble completely rejecting any of its rebels (Louis Riel is the obvious exception). The Group of Seven raised some of the same ardour in the 1920s that the regionalists raised in the 1970s, but right from the beginning they had their champions, supporters and collectors. After all, the National Gallery organized the first and only retrospective of Curnoe's work in 1981. John Ralston Saul is right — Canada has been built on negotiation and compromise, a land where nothing is ever entirely true. We live strung out along the border and scattered throughout the interior, jostling against each other, bitching and complaining, but in the end accepting that somehow we have to accept things as they are, at least when they can no longer be ignored.

There are a few things in the catalogue I could complain about, but they are overshadowed by a most remarkable essay by Dennis Reid entitled 'Some Things I Learned from Greg Curnoe'. In it, Reid describes how Curnoe taught him to pay attention to 'things', to the reality in front of him, not inherited opinion and ideas, how Curnoe, in effect, de-programmed him after his art history stint at the University of Toronto. Reid traces how Curnoe's example and endless arguments and discussions changed the way he looked at and wrote about art. Later, when Reid specialized in Canadian historical art he carried these lessons with him and sees them now as informing his career as a curator, teacher and art writer. As the tide slowly turns against the excessive theorizing in the arts of the past decade and a half, this essay, it seems to me, might well serve to redress our excesses and bring us back again to the making of art and to looking intensely at the art being made.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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