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Terrence Heath

Prairie Archdemonics:
Blessed or Cursed by the Emma Lake Workshops (1990)

The Flat Side of the Landscape: The Emma Lake Artists' Workshops originated at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and travelled to Windsor, Edmonton, Vancouver and Regina through April 1991. It was curated by John O'Brian who also edited the accompanying catalogue.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 9 #1, January 1990.
[ 2,410 words)


Opinions are passionately held in the arts. Reputations and careers are often at stake in the battles which arise out of these conflicting, fiercely held opinions. In Canada the battles have often been intensified by elements of nationalism, regionalism and even provincialism. Perhaps no engagement has been as bitter as the one revolving around the tenets of Modernism funnelled into the Canadian art scene through New York theorists and practitioners in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Emma Lake, an art camp set up in the mid-1930s in the northern part of Saskatchewan, has been the setting for the most intensive and continuous contact with the New York aesthetic. The workshops for professional artists, founded at the art camp in 1955, became the major focus for Canadian Modernism à la Greenberg. In many ways, even in this postmodern — or post-postmodern — art world the issues arising out of that phenomenon remain unresolved. It is still difficult to get any perspective on the nature and impact of these workshops in Canadian art history. The exhibition, The Flat Side of the Landscape, is the most recent attempt to identify the dynamic of the Emma Lake Workshops. After spending several hours with the exhibition, some time at the conference which opened it, and the requisite period of absorption in the catalogue text, I still feel dissatisfied. I am beginning to think that Barnett Newman's smart assed question, 'Emma who?,' is more profound than I would have imagined.

To give curator John O'Brian and his colleagues their due, they recognized from the beginning both the size and the essential difficulty of their undertaking. On the one hand, 30 workshops spanning the years 1955 to the present day, attracting over 500 participants and organized in anything but a regular and coherent manner, presented them with a collection of bits and pieces which would have challenged the most recondite puzzle solvers. On the other hand, they had to deal with a mythology as shrouded in its allusions as any from more distant times. As O'Brian states in his introduction: 'For a critical history of the Emma Lake Artists' Workshops something more substantial and inquiring is demanded: at a minimum, a close examination of the rationale and the output of the workshops, and an investigation of the continuities and discontinuities that characterize the enterprise.'

In order to establish some focus for the exhibition five workshops were selected out of the 25 years. They were chosen to provide the 'continuities' through which O'Brian offers evidence of a persistent American Modernist aesthetic. The chosen workshops were: the first one led by Jack Shadbolt (1955); the Barnett Newman workshop of 1959; the one led by the critic Clement Greenberg (1962); the 1969 workshop led by the sculptor Michael Steiner; and the 1979 one led by painter Friedel Dzubas and critic John Elderfield. The exhibition was to consist of works by workshop participants which were produced at the time or within two years following the session. But even these ostensibly clear guidelines led rather quickly, to use the title of Terry Atkinson's catalogue essay, 'from the lake to the swamp'.

The exhibition filled the Mendel Art Gallery. It was intelligently installed, the paintings spaced for easy viewing, the movement from one wall to the next smooth, the labelling and placement of pieces reflective of curatorial professionalism. However, upon closer examination the expected clarity of exposition began to cloud. What did become clear was that the mere act of hanging works in a room at a certain height and with uniform labels creates only a superficial sense of purpose and unity.

The first section, devoted to the workshop by Jack Shadbolt, had the oddest selection of works. Of the 20 chosen, eight were produced before the workshop and six were by artists not even at it. One of the preworkshop paintings was by Augustus Kenderdine, who died in 1947. Presumably this piece, depicting the Murray Point Road leading to the camp, was included to show the 'academic' tradition associated with Emma Lake before the workshops. This idea seems initially appealing, but if the purpose of the exhibition is in part to document the continuity of the Modernist aesthetic, then surely the curators might have shown more extensively the attempts at Modernism and non-representational work in Saskatchewan prior to the workshops. Kenderdine was certainly not a major art influence in the late forties. If the need for a sort of 'You Are Here' introduction was felt, a preliminary section might have been devoted to a survey of pre-1955 art in the province. The selection we got was neither sufficiently complete nor representative.

The second section, featuring participants of the workshop led by Barnett Newman in 1959, was basically given over to the artists who became known as the Regina Five (plus Roy Kiyooka and Robert Murray and minus Ken Lochhead). There is a consistency and cogency in this section, but even here there are anomalies. For example, the works of Ron Bloore shown here have nothing to do with Emma Lake. He had been working in this manner both before and after the workshop. There are in existence, however, drawings done by Bloore while he was at the workshop which could have been obtained easily from the artist. Similarly, the fountain piece by Robert Murray has nothing to do with Emma Lake. He was seriously painting at this time and it was not until after he went to New York that sculpture became his main interest. This section has some of the best work in the exhibition and it is interesting how many of the participants who became professional artists looked back on this summer session as pivotal in their development. It is also interesting that some, such as Bloore, did not.

From the point of view of organization and of the controversy it created, the Greenberg workshop of 1962 is the centrepiece of this exhibition. Here, the selection of works follows most closely the original guidelines. Most of the works date from the year of the workshop or immediately afterward. Except for those of Roy Kiyooka, Ernest Lindner and Guido Molinari, they seem to fit comfortably into the Greenbergian aesthetic. The inclusion of works by Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski extends the definition of participants a bit, but underlines the consistency of the triad workshops of 1962/63/64. Ernest Lindner has been badly served in this exhibition — it would have been interesting to have included one of the paintings he did at Olitski's suggestion in which the background was dropped altogether.

The weakest section looks at the Michael Steiner workshop of 1969. The introduction hails this workshop as helping to 'mold a new generation of artists in Saskatchewan', what Terry Fenton calls 'a third wave of abstract artists'. And it is true that new art was in fact being made. But it was being made in Regina by Joe Fafard, Ann James, Marilyn Levine, Vic Cicansky and, shortly after this workshop, Russell Yuristy. And it was to have nothing to do with Emma Lake. Some of the inconsistencies of selection trouble the fifth and last section as well, but by 1979 the paths are well marked. If there is new energy in works by David Alexander, Greg Hardy and Don Foulds, the patterns are long established. In contrast to the other sections, however, most of these works seem to have been done at the workshop. Tradition is no longer the Academe of Kenderdine, but the old fashioned aesthetic of 1950s New York.

It is always easier to criticize after the fact than to lay out a clear path in the midst of planning an exhibition. It seems to me, however, that the organizers got caught between handling the workshops as an historical phenomenon (which they are from the point of view of the central aesthetics of the chosen workshops) and as part of the development of an ongoing educational institution. Historically, the workshops have to be set in the context of contemporary art making. Some attempt was made to do this by including work by Kenderdine, Noland and Olitski, but these are too general to be of much use in historical analysis. Lindner's work, for example, changed quite dramatically between 1958 and 1963. Yet, the works selected do not show this change. Similarly, the caption on Arthur McKay's work Image of Clarity (1961) is very acute and useful to our understanding, but one painting of his from before the workshop would have not only made the point visually, it would also have underlined that dramatic, contemporary work was being done in Regina quite apart from the workshops. If the institutional history is pursued, the reactions to the dominance of the Modernist aesthetic also need a more prominent place.

The second point that struck me after I had had time to think about the exhibition was that it showed signs of having been constructed from reading rather than seeing. The inclusion of a scribble sheet from Greenberg, suggesting some future workshop leaders, is an amusing example, but throughout the exhibition I did not find a visual explanation of the workshops. The predominant movement was from historical document to work and often the work was either not the artist's best or was merely illustrative of the thesis. I felt the quality of the work was of secondary concern. It seems to me art exhibitions have to be visual first, then documentary. The exciting moments were seeing works actually painted at the workshops which stood in their own right as visual objects. It is that combination of impact and understanding which constitutes the vitality of an historic exhibition.

It is difficult in our galleries and museums to get away from eulogistic traditions. We want to praise and celebrate and I wouldn't want to argue with that desire. Nevertheless, there is a widespread and passionate feeling that the Emma Lake Workshops and the Greenberg aesthetic have been profoundly hurtful to the artists of this country. The restructuring of art school curricula, the exclusion of artists from public galleries, the decisions of granting juries, the discouragement of art which deviated from the canon and the manipulation of art markets have, rightly or wrongly, been laid at the feet of Greenberg enthusiasts. In this perspective, the Emma Lake Workshops have taken on a symbolic role as one of the archdemons in the ensuing battle.

This perception involves the much broader issue of the presence of American culture in Canada. The aesthetic of Greenberg was not simply confined to art, no matter how selfreferentially the art object may have been defined. It involved a paradigm of cultural thought which posited a centre and a periphery. The first work session of the conference, held on the Saturday after the opening, carried this very title. The lead speaker, who apparently was a pinchhitter and certainly out of his league, interpreted periphery as provincial, which did the service at least of exposing the real import of the paradigm. It is a model that has dominated Western political theory for 1500 years, which is ultimately built on an anthropomorphic concept of society. The centre (the capital, the imperial city, the Vatican, whatever it may be called) is the head and the other parts of society are, in hierarchically descending order, the body. The body, we are assured, is very important and has its necessary functions, but it is the head which directs and controls. The dangers of this sort of thinking in religion and politics have been only too evident; its late blossoming in American, post-1945 art talk has been seen to bear similar fruit.

If we are to take John O'Brian's words seriously, the task of developing a 'critical history' of the Emma Lake Workshops has only a beginning in this exhibition and catalogue. Much of the groundwork in the documentation and bibliography of the workshops has been done, an initial attempt to assess some aspects of Emma Lake is found in the five essays, but the visual history of the workshops remains in large part to be examined.

How can that be done? I think the works in The Flat Side of the Landscape could have been better chosen, even if it had meant excluding some artists or adhering to the original guidelines for selecting works. It seems to me there are two points of visual focus: what was produced at the workshops and what differences the workshops made on the artists' work. If the latter path had been followed I think the very different impacts of Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg would have been clear.

Beyond the immediate exhibition, a much more serious attempt at a conference on the workshops could have been organized. As O'Brian has emphasized, there are important questions to be dealt with, important for our understanding of the interworkings of the cultural and political worlds, and important for an understanding of the making of art in this country and on this continent. Even in the Saturday morning session, which was defined in philosophical rather than historical terms, there was an unsatisfactory and unfruitful combination of questions raised by the key paper itself. The afternoon session became what O'Brian thought could be dispelled by the exhibition, 'a litter of anecdotes and allusions'.

As Joe Fafard stated in a reply he did not have time to deliver: 'The question I wish to raise is: what would the art that has been produced here in the past 30 years have looked like if we had never been blessed or cursed by the Emma Lake Workshops? We will never know and that may be a bigger loss than gain.' In historical methodology, such a question is called counterfactual analysis and is really the basis of all our historical queries. We try to understand by hypothesizing, consciously or unconsciously, on fictional alternatives. The Flat Side of the Landscape is a positive contribution to our knowledge of the role of the Emma Lake Workshops in the past 30 years. It did not, however, ask the larger questions and, therefore, its answers are sometimes directed at smaller and ultimately unimportant issues. I find myself dissatisfied with the questions and the answers; I find myself wishing it could be done again.

The Flat Side of the Landscape: The Emma Lake Artists' Workshops originated at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and travelled to Windsor, Edmonton, Vancouver and Regina through April 1991. It was curated by John O'Brian who also edited the accompanying catalogue.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 9 #1, January 1990.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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