An­drew Hunter shares love of Lawren Har­ris with top co­me­dian

Scal­ing the peaks with Steve Martin

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF MAHONEY

Once upon a climb, early in his cu­ra­to­rial ca­reer, An­drew Hunter found him­self on the stair­well of the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton, stag­ing a de­lib­er­ately re­pug­nant ex­hi­bi­tion he called the “Punk and Cootie Show,” an ex­am­i­na­tion of punk.

(The punch-and-judy word­play was a glimpse into the mis­chievous in­tel­li­gence that of­ten char­ac­ter­izes his ap­proach.)

Here was a young art as­pi­rant given a chance, as part of the AGH’s Stair­well Project, to make an im­pres­sion.

So what did he do? Among other things, fea­tured a life­size, pants-down punk-pup­pet go­ing to the toi­let (ac­tual toi­let), on the stair­well. It was 1993.

He’s higher up now, the air thin­ner, in Lawren Har­ris’s moun­tains, hang­ing the leg­endary Group of Seven painter’s works at the Art Gallery of On­tario, where he’s Cana­dian art cu­ra­tor. Ac­tu­ally, he’s the Fred­er­ick S. Ea­ton cu­ra­tor, Cana­dian Art, AGO.

He smiles at his of­fi­cial ti­tle. “My daugh­ter calls me Fred.”

If he’s fig­u­ra­tively hang­ing Har­ris, then Steve Martin — yes, that one — is steady­ing the lad­der, or maybe the other way around.

Re­cently, An­drew and Steve sat fac­ing each other on a stage at the AGO, vol­ley­ing bon mots and art wis­dom for a press pre­view of “The Idea of North: The Paint­ings of Lawren Har­ris,” cu­rated by Steve Martin (runs to Sept. 19).

No small thing, to play wits with Steve Martin — com­edy in­no­va­tor, ac­tor, mu­si­cian, author, art lover. An­drew, east end Hamil­ton boy, was ut­terly poised.

Per­haps his com­fort level came from spend­ing much time with Steve Martin the last few years. An­drew got a phone call, in the midst of pre­par­ing for the AGO’s 2014 Alex Colville show. From Los An­ge­les’s Ham­mer Museum. They’d con­vinced Steve to take his pas­sion for Lawren Har­ris pub­lic, in a cu­rated ex­hi­bi­tion.

“He was averse at first,” says An­drew. “‘That’s for the ex­perts,’” he said. “’I’m no cu­ra­tor.’” Maybe not, but he has the au­thor­ity of a taste­ful eye, a true feel.

Still, no one should scale these heights alone. An­drew, who’s been ev­ery­thing from cu­ra­tor at the Van­cou­ver Art Gallery to a driv­ing force be­hind the anti-hi­er­ar­chi­cal DodoLab guer­rilla art project, was asked to col­lab­o­rate.

They met. “He showed up on a bi­cy­cle,” An­drew tells me. “We spent the af­ter­noon to­gether, talk­ing about Har­ris. There was a click.”

More meet­ings, Los An­ge­les, Saskatchewan, where they trav­elled to­gether to look at a Har­ris col­lec­tion there.

“He wanted to see ev­ery­thing,” says An­drew.

Af­ter the Los An­ge­les show, ver­sions of it were mounted else­where in United States; the Museum of Fine Arts in Bos­ton, for in­stance.

The on­go­ing “Idea of North” project has cul­mi­nated with its repa­tri­a­tion, so to speak, at the AGO.

“He (Steve Martin) had been ap­pre­ci­at­ing art long be­fore he was a star,” says An­drew. When he was beat­ing around the cam­pus stand-up cir­cuit he’d visit gal­leries. “His was an ed­u­ca­tion just by look­ing,” says An­drew. “Not aca­demic, but in­cred­i­bly per­cep­tive.”

His first in­ter­est, early Amer­i­can tromp l’oeil, evolved into a cu­rios­ity about early 20th-cen­tury mod­ernists like Ed­ward Hop­per, then ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism. When he en­coun­tered Har­ris, as a pre­cur­sor to ab­strac­tion, he was dumb­struck. Har­ris, though his­toric here, was largely un­known in the U.S. Steve felt he’d dis­cov­ered some­one new.

Like An­drew, he came to art through work­ing class roots. Steve grew up in Waco, Texas, son of a real es­tate sales­man; An­drew in east Hamil­ton (Ross­lyn Av­enue), his fa­ther a tool and dye maker, his mom a nurse at the Gen­eral, both U.K. im­mi­grants who picked up and came here af­ter the Sec­ond World War. They sent all four chil­dren through univer­sity; in An­drew’s case not un­til he’d worked as a steeple­jack, home painter, jan­i­tor.

“This city has al­ways fu­elled my think­ing,” he says.

He’s con­tin­ued to live in Hamil­ton in his role at the AGO. He spends much time here “just walk­ing around. Some­thing about this place gets my brain go­ing.”

His work with groups like DodoLab, which he co-founded, of­ten ad­dressed de­in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing art (of­ten from within in­sti­tu­tions), re-in­te­grat­ing it with com­mu­nity, through col­lab­o­ra­tion, ac­ces­si­bil­ity, di­ver­sity, bridg­ing high and low, se­ri­ous and comic.

Hence his in­ter­est in ev­ery­thing from Har­ris to Steve Martin to the punk move­ment, which in its in­fancy in Canada found a hos­pitably soiled cra­dle in in­dus­trial Hamil­ton.

His pro­gres­sive ap­proach, open­ing up the frame, and his pas­sion for in­dige­nous art, at­tracted Matthew Teit­el­baum, who when he was AGO di­rec­tor hired An­drew.

It’s the beau­ti­ful para­dox of art that it gets at the high through the low and vice versa, the moun­tain­top through the toi­let.

It’s a theme through the Steve Martin/ Lawren Har­ris ex­pe­ri­ence.

Har­ris’s quasi-ab­stract moun­tains are aus­tere, in­formed by a rad­i­cal pu­rity. Yet they have a warm, comic side.

They’re snow, rock and ice, full of hard idea, but also creamy, sen­sual, ironic, like Steve Martin in his per­fect white suit, dan­ger­ously new and ab­stract yet humbly vaudevil­lian.

Then there’s An­drew Hunter, with his ivory tower re­sumé, who’s been to par­ties at David Hock­ney’s canyon house in L.A and has kicked through the bro­ken glass of Hamil­ton’s in­dus­trial day­dream, per­haps a long-re­mem­bered Teenage Head song throb­bing in his head.

Just your ev­ery­day, next door AGO Cana­dian art cu­ra­tor.

An­drew Hunter. Neigh­bour

KEITH BEATY, TORONTO STAR

Steve Martin, left, par­tic­i­pated in a Q&A with co-cu­ra­tor An­drew Hunter of the AGO.

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