The Way It Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

by James King Dun­durn, 392 pages, $45 “What if daily life in Canada is bor­ing??” asks Cana­dian painter Greg Curnoe in a stamped- let­ters, wa­ter­colour, and gouache piece from 1987. In Curnoe’s rest­lessly in­ven­tive hands, it never was. The Lon­don, On­tario-based Curnoe died in 1992 at age fifty-five in a bik­ing ac­ci­dent that cut short a cre­ative life marked by a deep-felt fu­sion of art and ev­ery­day ex­is­tence. Thor­oughly re­searched, though some­times dryly ex­pressed, a new bi­og­ra­phy by Hamil­ton-based writer James King paints a pic­ture of a com­plex, of­ten con­tra­dic­tory artist and man.

A pas­sion­ate re­gion­al­ist, Curnoe re­jected what he saw as the my­opic metropoli­tanism of Toronto and put down deep roots in his home­town of Lon­don. He was fiercely, al­most ob­ses­sively anti-Amer­i­can. At the same time, he was in­tel­lec­tu­ally open to in­ter­na­tional and his­toric in­flu­ences, draw­ing on Euro­pean artists such as Henri Matisse and Mar­cel Duchamp.

Art critic Gary Michael Dault called Curnoe a “walk­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,” and his work of­ten fo­cused on the minute and mun­dane de­tails of his own life. But he could also be emo­tion­ally elu­sive.

He took loud, ob­streper­ous stances against the of­fi­cial art es­tab­lish­ment — and he suc­ceeded in set­ting up Cana­dian Artists’ Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that still ad­vo­cates for artists to­day — but his re­bel­lion some­times comes off as knee- jerk con­trar­i­an­ism. Curnoe’s work­ing-class iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was partly an af­fec­ta­tion, King sug­gests, and, like many male artists com­ing of age in the 1950s, his pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics did not ex­tend to gen­der roles.

King, who has also writ­ten on David Milne and Lawren Har­ris, charts Curn- oe’s life chrono­log­i­cally, pack­ing in colour il­lus­tra­tions on thick, high-gloss pa­per that make this a (lit­er­ally) heavy book.

The artist had a happy, mod­estly mid­dle-class child­hood, be­came a bit of a mis­fit ado­les­cent, and then fa­mously flunked out of the On­tario Col­lege of Art. “I didn’t fail OCA. OCA failed me,” Curnoe de­clared.

Re­turn­ing to Lon­don, he set up a stu­dio and pro­ceeded to be­come an artist, through hard work but also some self­con­scious pos­ing. “When at­tend­ing an open­ing, he chose de­lib­er­ately out­landish, loud cloth­ing to call at­ten­tion to him­self as dif­fer­ent from oth­ers,” King writes. He also set­tled down into fam­ily life, mar­ry­ing Sheila Curnoe (née Thomp­son) and be­com­ing fa­ther to three chil­dren. In the 1970s, Curnoe got se­ri­ously into cy­cling. Bikes, with their “stripped-down re­la­tion­ship be­tween form and func­tion,” ap­pealed to him and soon be­came a re­cur­ring mo­tif in his paint­ing.

Curnoe’s art was marked by these kinds of faith­ful, long-run­ning themes, as well as by pe­ri­odic rein­ven­tions. Sheila had of­ten com­plained about be­ing his model, for ex­am­ple, and in the 1980s Curnoe used him­self as a model for a se­ries of un­spar­ing self-por­traits that re­sponded to charges by fem­i­nist crit­ics that he was ob­jec­ti­fy­ing women.

While there are pop-like el­e­ments on the sur­face of some of Curnoe’s paint­ings, King is rightly wary about clas­si­fy­ing him as a pop artist. The larger arc of his work veered to­ward con­cep­tu­al­ism, with its con­cern for is­sues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and lan­guage. Curnoe was also in­spired by the an­ar­chis­tic spirit of Dada. In 1962 he helped to or­ga­nize the first neo-Dada “hap­pen­ing” in Cana­dian art, com­plete with a “chance sculp­ture” meant to col­lapse un­der the weight of at­ten­dees’ win­ter coats — which is about as Cana­dian as it gets.

King is warmly sym­pa­thetic to his sub­ject, de­scrib­ing Curnoe’s gre­gar­i­ous charm, but he cer­tainly re­lates enough anec­dotes to sug­gest that Curnoe could be moody, con­trol­ling, and dif­fi­cult. The bi­og­ra­phy is de­tailed and com­pre­hen­sive but too of­ten lists off odd facts — such as that Curnoe picked out Sheila’s shoes for an art open­ing, and they pinched her feet — with­out giv­ing much con­text. In

The Way It Is, we glimpse Curnoe’s per­son­al­ity in brief, vivid flashes but never quite see him whole. Re­viewed by Ali­son Gill­mor, a Win­nipeg jour­nal­ist and art his­to­rian.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.