Andrew Hunter shares love of Lawren Harris with top comedian
Scaling the peaks with Steve Martin
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
Steve Martin, left, participated in a Q&A with co-curator Andrew Hunter of the AGO.