Art

Cutting edge in Calgary

John Bentley Mays February 18 1980
Art

Cutting edge in Calgary

John Bentley Mays February 18 1980

Cutting edge in Calgary

Art

John Bentley Mays

Throughout the ’70s, painters had to put up with unprecedented snipes and put-downs. They were denounced by critics as hopelessly wedded to old-fashioned ideas. They were criticized as fashionable jewelry-makers by workers in such dramatic new media as video and performance. And they had to go through the dismaying experience of watching some of their own crew jump ship after concluding that the venerable art that began in the Stone Age had finally become old hat. Despite those assaults, however, many artists doggedly went on putting paint onto board or stretched cloth—and the results, selected and assembled in a show called Aspects of Canadian Painting in the Seventies on view until March 16 at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, are strong enough to convince the most stubborn doubter that painting, in this country anyway, is not only alive but kicking.

Organized by Curator of Art Jeff Spalding and Assistant Curator Peter White, Aspects brings together works by 19 artists painting in Canada during the past decade. But except for time and

place, these paintings have little in common: the variety of styles, subjects and ambitions they display is formidable. Among the paintings of recognizable images, for example, Gathie Falk’s large Lawn in Three Parts—smoothly painted grass and a cascade of summer flowers—stands in contrast to Paterson Ewen’s magnificent Rain Over Water, wilder nature depicted on heavily painted, deeply gouged plywood. Eric Fischl’s fine Rowboat, roughly rendered in a style reminiscent of “primitive” or folk art, should be compared with Tim Zuck’s oceans and tugs, so neatly painted that they verge on pure abstraction.

These and other figurative paintings are among the chief joys of the show. The subjects (from Shirley Wiitasalo’s toy train wrecks to Greg Curnoe’s five-

speed Gitane bike) provide relatively easy ways into the deeper problems the artists are exploring in their works— those old, enduring problems of color, design and construction. But most of the pictures Spalding and White have chosen are not so easy to enter. They invite you right into their complexities without offering you the stepping-stone of a familiar image.

These abstract works run the whole range of ’70s painting, from the most stringent experiments in design—such as David Craven’s secretive, black Shadrac and the flat, taut grid patterns of Daniel Blyth—to the most richly sensual, expressive celebrations of the painter’s craft. In the latter category

are two elegantly striped canvases by Saskatoon artist William Perehudoff, two beautiful and energetically macho works by Torontonian David Bolduc and Erik Gamble’s dark chromatic fantasy entitled The Continents.

Looking for a principle of unity in this fundamentally pluralist show is a mistake; as Spalding says, Aspects “makes no claim to be either representative or comprehensive.” Eight of the 19 artists are based in southern Ontario and six on the East Coast—but only one (Christian Knudsen) in Quebec and only two (Falk and Perehudoff) farther west than London, Ontario. Other oddities: the strong painters left out (Jack Shadbolt, Gershon Iskowitz, Yves Gaucher); the mix of polished pros (such as Ewen) and raw newcomers (Daniel Blyth, Michael Fernandes). Quibbles aside, however, Aspects drives home one important point: that throughout a decade when many considered painting wellnigh extinct, painters in Canada were creating works of genuine daring, force and intelligence. Spalding and White, in this eccentric and frankly argumentative exhibition, have made this rather improbable point seem completely obvious. What one may not also realize is just how many other plausible improbabilities are tucked away in the Glenbow Museum.

The current centre of these odd goings-on is, unquestionably, the art department. Until about 18 months ago, art at the Glenbow meant a visit by a travelling show or an exhibit of frontier painting drawn from the museum’s own collection. If you drop by this month, however, you will find in one corner of the huge Special Exhibition Floor an installation of wry fashion-photo blowups by Toronto performance artist David Buchan. In another, a gathering of works of avant-gardist Max Ernst that has brought critical attention to

the Glenbow from across Canada. Right next to Ernst, you will find Aspects; and next to that, a display of book and magazine illustrations by the 1920s U.S. artist Charles Livingston Bull, selected from the Glenbow’s collection by Peter White. All these exhibits are strong, sharply focused and excellently installed.

The two reasons for the sudden greening of the art department are Spalding and White. Spalding, 28, took the job of art curator in August, 1978, following studies and curating stints at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Even scantier was the pre-Glenbow experience of White. An ex-Globe and Mail sports and arts writer, he had only spent a few months as a curatorial assistant at The New Museum in New York City before going to Calgary, a month after Spalding. One might presume that two such green curators would be a bit cautious. But not Spalding and White: within only a couple of months of arriving they had launched an ambitious series of art lectures featuring Canadian and U.S. critical writers.

Encouraged by the interest shown in the lecture series, they went on to craft the current season’s impressive list of exhibitions, and a lineup of appearances entitled Presentations in the Arts—half over now and a success by any yardstick. Among others, enthusiastic Calgary audiences have seen The New Museum’s director, Marcia Tucker, lecture on the art of performance; David Buchan play his fictional entertainment idol, Lamonte Del Monte; and U.S. performance artist Laurie Anderson, with her doctored violin, acting out her history in story, song and parable. Coming up: New York super-critic Robert Pin-

eus-Witten; composer/musician Philip Glass; and Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt “on Christopher Pratt.” In short, a series that would be the envy of a city five times Calgary’s size. “It was another creative risk,” says Spalding. “But committed, interested audiences are turning out. Not just a small club, either—we are getting new people at every event.”

Contrary to Eastern Canadian prejudices, however, the art stars featured in Presentations are not being washed into Calgary on a tidal wave of petrodollars. According to White, the budget is only $15,000 (which includes transportation and fees), of which $7,000 will come from the city-backed Calgary Region Arts Foundation and much of the rest from ticket sales. Far more important than money is the elbow room given by the museum and its director, Duncan Cameron, to Spalding and White—who,

with chinook-like speed, have brought the Glenbow its current reputation as a national centre of innovative arts programming.

Such boomtown buccaneering might only have been possible at a place with the peculiar background of the Glenbow. It all started as a gleam in the eye of Eric Harvie, a lawyer who became suddenly and fabulously rich in the Alberta oil rush of the late ’40s. Wealth seemed to bring out the pack rat in Harvie: between his big strike and his death in 1975, he and his minions gathered thousands upon thousands of books, artworks, Indian, African and Micronesian artifacts, pioneer furniture and utensils, manuscripts, pieces of armor, mineral specimens, stuffed animals and birds, and assorted widgets and oddments—most chosen on the basis of what struck his fancy. “He didn’t trust professionals or academics,” says Chief Curator Hugh Dempsey, himself a perfect example of the self-taught man. “He just wanted to pursue his hobby.” Most of Harvie’s hoard went to the Glenbow-Alberta Institute in 1966 but found no permanent home before the province of Alberta built the Glenbow Museum in 1976. Though Harvie did not live to see the opening of the palatial Glenbow, his maverick spirit lives on there. It would be hard to imagine any other place where are found, peacefully coexisting, a display of sleazy replicas of the Crown Jewels; a four-storey kitsch extravaganza of acrylic and aluminum that, every half-hour, lights up and sings Clair de lune; and the splendid Aspects show. Eric Harvie would probably never admit to admiring the kinds of cutting-edge concerns being promoted by Spalding and White—he liked his art horsey. But, one feels, he would understand the high-spirited eccentricity and panache of his art curators, and approve.