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Coast to Coast: The Little Worlds of Tony Urquhart - Forty Years of Opening Boxes

Introduction

Tony Urquhart defined the principles of his art early in his career. In 1960, he wrote: "I feel that a painting, while being complete in itself design wise, should have a certain ambiguity. It should provoke thought and act rather like an open-ended question. It may puzzle but it must not bore." Five years later, he wrote "Whether old master or contemporary, all of the works of art I most admire seem to have one thing in common – an 'after image' – something about the painting that lingers in the mind and makes one want to come back to it." That compelling quality has become a hallmark of Urquhart's own paintings, drawings, and sculptures. His work is engaged with visual ambiguity and the tension between the prose of representation and artistic poetry.

Concerned with the relationship between the land and human experience, Urquhart has written of his art, "Everything is subservient to the landscape vision." But it is remnants of the cultivated, built and inhabited landscape that have most engaged him. Though his drawings and watercolours are inspired by the countryside of Ireland and France as much as his native south-western Ontario, Urquhart's painted landscapes represent imagined places, shaped by aesthetic demands and by memory - the memory of the artist and that which inheres within the place itself. In his paintings and boxes, the artist offers his viewers access into the landscapes of his imagination, a world that nature and culture share, sometimes uneasily. Infused with longing and desire, Urquhart's imagined places are informed by memories of place and of people, by an intuitive understanding of the power of archetypal symbols and by a deep longing for oneness with and wholeness in the world of nature.

What Urquhart has called "boxing" began in 1965. But it was forty years ago this year, in 1967, that he began to experiment with the opening boxes -- unique inventions he calls "paintings continued into the third dimension." He might have also added the fourth dimension, since the boxes and their secret interior places require the discovery of the work over time.

Between 2001 and 2003, three retrospective exhibitions, focusing on Urquhart's drawings, paintings and boxes respectively circulated to public galleries throughout Canada - recognition of the importance of his work to the Canadian art scene. But this year, Urquhart has looked to a new forum, extending the exhibition beyond the gallery walls to cyberspace, in a collaborative venture that offers new insights into the boxes and their creation and allows us to celebrate the breadth and range of these extraordinary treasures.

The origins of this exhibition lie in a wonderful mix of tradition and contemporary technology. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his first opening box, and forty years of making boxes, Urquhart wrote hand-written letters, in his elegant script, asking gallery directors to exhibit their Urquhart box[es] for the month of November 2007. (He had been told that people were more likely to respond to hand-written letters than to e-mails.) Tony had already sent the letters out when he told me about the proposed exhibition and I suggested that he might consider a virtual exhibition that would, at the same time as they were being exhibited in more than twenty galleries across the country, bring those far-flung boxes together, albeit in a virtual world. The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art already had on display a large body of works by Urquhart and writings about that work. The proposed virtual exhibition represented a complement and logical extension of the CCCA's existing Urquhart documentation and Bill Kirby responded immediately. The result is an online exhibition, which brings together images, new texts by the artist discussing each of the works in the exhibition, and an interview with him about the boxes and his creative process.

While visitors are invited to explore the work within the physical space of the galleries, with the caveat that Jean Sutherland Boggs suggested to "Please handle gently," cyber-viewers are offered photographs that provide multiple perspectives on a single box, and, in some cases, preparatory drawings that show the evolution of the work, as well as a video interview with the artist.

From the rural Canadian landscape (Ontario Winter Box) and the spiritually invested spaces of France (Rocamadour II and IV), to the interior places of the psyche (Cave of the Black Lights), the opening boxes will lead their viewers, through the realm of the artist's imagination, into the remarkable worlds of Tony Urquhart.

Joyce Zemans, CM
York University


Text: © Joyce Zemans. All rights reserved.

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