The Canadian Art Database

Richard A. Sinclair

Greg Curnoe
Forest City Gallery, London, May 23 - June 14 1986

Vanguard, Vol.15 #4, September 1986.
[ 764 words ]

To attend to a Greg Curnoe painting is to be ensnared in the particular history of art he has created over the last several decades. The impulse to object or argue theory with this analytical and intelligent artist is given pause in this exhibition when one realizes the subject of these tender, sensitively observed and skillfully rendered watercolours and pastels is his family. The well-explored issues of cultural context, particularity of content, point of view and perceptual mechanisms are all present, but Curnoe here raises the stakes from the merely social or cultural to the human and personal by deliberately choosing subjects close to his heart.

The six life-size or larger portraits, seven small works (some of them studies for the portraits) and one Funny Bike in 'nil werk' [sic] have the fresh clarity and transparency of a sunny day. Indeed, the small studies Galen Walking Into Lake Huron (Aug. 28-29, 1985), Zoe and Rufus at Port Franks (Aug. 27-Sept. 2, 1985) on a yellow beach and Rufus and Sheila at Port Franks (Aug. 13, 1983) lying on the beach under an umbrella, are the artist's delicate memory depictions of just such precious days, all blue and white and yellow. The large portraits though, are a more formal collaboration between artist and subject, a traditional enough relationship, but more subtly and just as importantly between father, sons and daughter, husband and wife, and man and self.

The younger Curnoes stand facing the viewer in front of simple watercolour or pastel grounds with words associated with them pencilled in in the Curnoe manner. Owen (June 21,1983 - Feb. 15, 1984) stands in his dark boots, hands in pockets, chain around neck, direct blue gaze, square chin against a green ground, with the words VIDEO, JACQUI, TRUST. Galen (Feb. 12 - Nov. 26, 1984), against a red, yellow and blue ground, crosses his arms, looks to the left and inward. And there is Zoe (Dec. 6, 1984 - May 12, 1986) in pastel and pencil crayon pink, with yellow hair and wide blue eyes and the words SNUGGLES (a rabbit) TECUMSE, ESTHER, LYDIA, HOW and TALL. The drawing is more skilled and carefully observed than is at first obvious in these works that are so straightforward in format and unobtrusively subtle in the balance of their formal elements.

The Study for Genuine is a pastel of a red and purple floral motif that drapes the bed in the portrait titled Genuine (April 10, 1985 - May 19, 1986). Here, the subject reclines symmetrically, hands behind her head and attends the viewer with a directness and knowing vulnerability. The image, the bluish white skin against the red and purple floral blanket, the amount of resolution of the drawing, the relation of the shapes to the ragged edge of the paper is as integrated as Edwin Holgate's Nude (1930) is to the landscape. But the content is the converse, as is the pose. This is not a classical symbol but a particular golden-haired participant in a collaboration. There are no words in Genuine.

The self-portrait Middle Aged Man in L.C.W. Suit (Sept. 22, 1982 - June 17,1983), the earliest major work in the exhibition, has lots of words. Curnoe presents himself rather like a specimen, life-size in the right-hand side of the surface. The multi-coloured face looks straight out. Skin-tight yellow cycling suit. Rather stringy legs. You can see the bottom of his feet. He is surrounded by little bicycle wheels in his compositional box. He shares the box with coloured musings: THINKING ABOUT:SHORT WAVES, ARGENTINA, JERRY LEE LEWIS, ZOE TRISTAN RADIO, GOOSE GREEN, GLENN GOULD, CAROL POPE, BON SCOTT, YELLOWMAN, WEIMAR. Pencilled outside are: WHERE IS RUFUS?, NEIL YOUNG, LUCIEN FREUD, MONEY, HYDRO BILL and MAKING TRADES. The bright watercolour, the paper shining through, makes the tone of the portrait as seductive as the mood is analytical.

If Curnoe's ideas have in the past sometimes seemed forced and polemical, he might be said, in this exhibition, to have come naturally home to Alice Munro country. It is one thing to conspire to analyze, depict, critique and help create a city, region, cultural sensibility, even one's own self and work. But here the act and responsibility of collaborating with his family has drawn from Curnoe a sensitive and genuine statement that is all the more forceful and intriguing for its simplicity and intimacy.

Vanguard, Vol.15 #4, September 1986.

Text: © Richard A. Sinclair. All rights reserved.

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