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Ross Woodman

London Painting Now [1976]
[Greg Curnoe, Duncan DeKergommeaux, Michael Durham, Eric Atkinson, Richard Bonderenko, Claude Breeze, Bernice Vincent, Paterson Ewen, and Kerry Ferris]
London Art Gallery, January 9 - February 1, 1976

artscanada #204/205, April / May 1976.
[ 1,462 words ]


The existence of London, Ontario, as an art centre of some importance was officially recognized by The Heart of London show arranged by the National Gallery as a touring exhibition in 1966. That exhibition demonstrated in various and sundry ways the rich regional emphasis which was the distinctive characteristic of many of the London artists, particularly Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, John Boyle, Murray Favro, Tony Urquhart and Ron Martin. There were, of course, others in the show who were not partcularly attracted to or influenced by regional matters, David and Royden Rabinowitch among them. Both of these artists (along with some of the rest, including John Boyle and Tony Urquhart) subsequently left London, David Rabinowitch to establish an international reputation as a sculptor primarily through his association with the Bykert Gallery in New York and exhibitions in Germany and Italy. But many of the artists who were strongly identified with what is perhaps still in some circles considered the London School have remained: Chambers, Curnoe, Favro and Martin, for example. Of these only Curnoe is in the present show, with one rather lonely bicycle leaning against the wall.

Judging from this present exhibition of 35 London painters showing 64 examples of their work which Donald DeGrow, Assistant Curator (Education) of the London Art Gallery, put together, the regional emphasis is a thing of the past. To ask what has replaced it is to assume that something should. But clearly nothing has. 'There is nothing in the city which can be termed a "London School",' writes DeGrow in his introduction to the catalogue, 'rather the artists are most emphatically individuals and their work reflects this.' This could, of course, be a good and healthy thing, particularly in a city like London whose insularity can have all the vices of its virtue (incest among them). The insistence upon movements or schools in modern art has tended all along to render works outside the movements or schools largely invisible as if they did not exist or had no right to exist. It could therefore be argued on the evidence of this exhibition that London artists have been liberated from the kind of tyranny that almost inevitably sets in when art becomes more or less defined within a set of perimeters established by Jack Chambers or Greg Curnoe. There is only one of each of them and those who attempt to paint like them or share their views of what painting should be or do (or in Curnoe's case say) are going to end up walking in their shadows. Martin recognized that years ago and has left his Curnoe phase entirely behind.

On the other hand, some shadows are better to walk in than others. Very late Abstract Expressionism or all-over painting or Hard Edge or painting as object contain a built-in dreariness which is, I think, the chief fault of this exhibition. Too many paintings have been done far better somewhere else. The fact that they were done here means in the present context little or nothing at all, for the very notion of 'here' has been largely abandoned.

It is a large show for a small, provincial city, which by its very size makes claims for itself that it cannot fulfil. DeGrow, I think, erred on the side of generosity. Much of what he found in artists' studios should probably have stayed there and much that he did not find should probably have been included. 'As often as possible,' DeGrow writes, 'the work chosen was very recent, within the last year.' This, then, was the Curator's choice and, by and large, I think it was a mistake. It gives the show a far too chancy appearance, far too accidental. The Curator's word for this is 'gutsy'. I would qualify that by adding 'raw' or 'unformed'.

To the so-called 'gutsy' DeGrow opposes what he calls the 'slick polished', which he argues is 'noticeably absent' in London. 'Slick' of course, is pejorative and might by this show's apparent standards include Duncan DeKergommeaux's Red, Green, Grey, which works with a colour grid in a highly professional and refined way. 'Polished' it certainly is, though perhaps not 'slick' because of the agitated brush strokes that tend to energize what might otherwise become merely an exercise. Michael Durham's Nemesis is another matter. It is a very large painting that tends to dominate an entire wall. In this show it has considerable prominence. And it, I think, is very 'slick' indeed. Energy is curiously absent and the mounting to a crisis or a focus turns out to be (as in so many of his paintings) a series of painted wooden interlocking cut‑outs that give the painting away. What poses as some sort of encounter with canvas turns out to be rather refined and deliberate decoration. Eric Atkinson's Ste Marie Among the Huron plays out yet another hand of his pseudo hieroglyphics. Richard Bonderenko, on the other hand, is represented by a very large 'gutsy' painting that still lacks the discipline to avoid his recent tendency to over‑spill. Claude Breeze exhibits again his large triptych which he showed last year at the McIntosh Gallery. It is the kind of work which, given its limitations, nevertheless acts to separate the sheep from the goats. It is a solemn and professional work.

Paintings that demand that you look usually wear their hearts on their sleeves and in the end you hear mainly the cry of their own pleading. Some of the paintings in this show which I most liked were the most modest. Bernice Vincent has been around for a long, long time, quietly painting a suburban housewife world that contains more genuine anxiety than all the flashy brush strokes in this exhibition. There Beneath the Blue Suburban Skies she calls a 'Cloud Calendar' and that is just what it is. The month is September and the days on the calendar are each small, carefully painted cloud formations that suggest space, distance and aspiration locked up in their imprisoning grids. Above the 'September, 1975,' are those familiar ranch‑styles, painted low, mechanical and rather squashed, while above them float clouds that move toward what in this small work seems all infinite sky. Calendar art and calendar echo each other in a world of trapped energy that here finds its outlet, bearing what so few paintings in this show can endure: the impress of a life lived in and out of art seeking as they must in Canada and in London some sort of uneasy alliance.

Paterson Ewen, who also works with weather, is a great deal more stormy. But for all that, the tension itself is less. His work is more 'manly' and 'ambitious', and it's very good indeed. But I still prefer Bernice Vincent's inner weather. She paints in a beautifully haunted way about the things she will never paint.

Paterson Ewen is there in all her discarded lace; the roses, bows and ribbons of the now obsolete girl. Her fibreglass cloth, resin dyes, cloth flowers, barbed wire and spray paint are almost as haunted as the work of Bernice Vincent. Roses Into Flames (the title of one of her two exhibited works), however, gives the difference away. Something in this artist's work is exploding, breaking out, rejecting, viewing with horror, a world that Vincent has uncomfortably settled into. Hassan's power lies, I think, in the direction of the grotesque. Her work looks like Miss Havisham just before she went up in flames.

Another woman painter (they call attention to it, not I) in this show is Kerry Ferris. Her work, more than most artists in this show, reveals some genuine continuity with the old London School. I suppose for that reason I am disposed toward it. It is deliberately tentative, as if she wants you to share her groping, feeling, finding her way. I find it extremely feminine and when I look at it for a long time (as on occasion I have done) my experience is strangely like looking for something I've lost in a wildly cluttered drawer. The satisfaction of her paintings is that, though it wasn't very important, I nevertheless found it.

If I were to draw from all I saw one overall and positive conclusion, it would be this: like writing at present in Canada, some of the best painting in London is being done by a group of young women painters. I know it appears unfair to call attention to their sex, but attention to their sex is, it seems to me, what their paintings are about. In fact, so far as I am concerned, it constitutes for London the possibility of a new regionalism. God knows, we now badly need it.


artscanada #204/205, April / May 1976.


Text: © Ross Woodman. All rights reserved.

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