Don Bonham vs London Regionalism

Don Bonham, 1972

Don Bonham (1940–2014) was a colourful individualist, an irreverent outsider with a fantastical artistic vision. He was also an inspiring mentor to numerous art students (including me), a godfather to more than eighty apprentices, and a surprising and formidable anomaly in the art world. According to art critic Edward Lucie-Smith, his idiosyncratic sculpture was “more firmly integrated with North American popular culture than the work of celebrated Pop Art practitioners Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.”[1]

In 2012, I had the special privilege of curating the monumental retrospective exhibition Don Bonham, RCA: Stranger in a Familiar Land for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which chronicled the artist’s distinctive creative vision through the presentation of his many anthropomorphic flying and ground machines, numerous sculpted portraits that merge classical form with modern technology, and various angelic bodies and chimeric creatures, such as winged serpents, human-koi fish, and other mythical human-animal hybrids. Along with sculpture, it also featured many drawings, collages, prints, photographs, films, and assorted ephemera – a dazzling array of objects and artifacts that shone a spotlight on more than forty-five years of art production.

The first American visual artist to be appointed to the Royal Canadian Academy, Bonham exhibited his work in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Montreal, Toronto, Florida, and Europe, including the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and was awarded the Alex J. Ettl Grant for lifetime achievement as a sculptor by the National Sculpture Society, the first organization of professional sculptors formed in the United States. 

Bonham came to prominence in the late 1960s in London, Ontario, where he quickly gained international notoriety for his highly original, finely crafted, figurative fibreglass sculpture based on evocative human/technology hybrids – motorcycles, cars, boats, and airplanes fused with casts of the female body. Characterized by uncompromising attention to technical detail and finish, his work merged fantasy and reality, parodic humour and eroticism, high tech and low tech, and high art and low art in a life-long exploration of the physical, symbolic, and psychological relationships between humankind and machines. Through a personal, yet universally accessible, visual language, he shone a light on the greatest of human urges – sex and death – and the enduring hold of mythology on human culture.

View of the installation of Don Bonham RCA Stranger in a Familiar Land Beaverbrook Art Gallery 2012. Photo: Roger Smith

Bonham was born on November 9, 1940, at the height of the American oil boom in an oil field in the town of Moore, located in Tornado Alley and considered part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area today. He never had art classes in elementary or high school and claimed his interest in sculpture and technology derived from the industrial machinery he saw in the oil fields (he loved the smell of crude oil), as well as from reading Hot Rod magazine and fixing up used cars and racing them. Add to this his keen interest in twentieth-century military history, aviation, and war machines, which was enriched by his personal experience as a Marine who served in an elite recon unit in Southeast Asia.

As an infant, Bonham was abandoned by his biological mother and illegally adopted by his great-aunt and -uncle. He stated, “They tried to make me part of their family, but I never quite fit in and was always looking for where I belonged. I was an outsider. I was unhappy and tried to run away several times. My first goal in life was to get the hell out of Oklahoma, and it was the U.S. Marine Corps that provided the way out.”

Bonham moved to London on August 6, 1968. As he recalled, “I had finished with the service, and I’d finished university, and I was living for a short time in Detroit. That was the year they burned it. I said, ‘I don’t really need any more of this.’ They killed Bobby Kennedy, they killed King. . . It was time to go. I had been given the names of two artists who lived in a place called West Lorne outside of London, Ontario, from the Dean of Art History at the University of Oklahoma. They were right off the 401, so I stopped in and met Ed Zelenak and Walter Redinger. They were both sculptors who were picking tobacco to earn a living. We just hit it off and became good friends. They were doing really well, working like dogs, making art and winning grants. I thought “Holy shit, this is unbelievable, I should move to Canada.”

Don Bonham and Walter Redinger, c. 1970

1968 was the year after Canada had celebrated its centennial anniversary as a nation. It was an exuberant time when Canadian optimism and proud and defiant nationalist sentiment had reached a fevered pitch accompanied by an equally pronounced sentiment of anti-Americanism. Virulent Yankee-bashing was part and parcel of the regional approach to the artmaking that emerged in London, a common defence against fear of losing economic control, of a takeover of Canadian culture, and of the erosion of Canadian autonomy.

The hyper-regionalist voice of London artist Greg Curnoe was such that it espoused a Canadian identity derived from one’s own backyard and personal experience, while reinforcing prejudices against Americans through bold anti-American statements in his work like “Close the 49th Parallel” and “Use of American spelling of words to be punished by strapping.” He reconfigured maps of North America where the United States has been eliminated and Canada borders Mexico, and his painting View of Victoria Hospital, Second Series (February 10, 1969 – March 10, 1971) features an American B-58 Hustler bomber being shot down by Canadian patriots. In 1970, he and fellow artist John Boyle (Yankee Go Home: Rape of St. Catherine [1973]) presented a provocative anti-American manifesto that spoke about “putting up big fences and filling in the Detroit tunnel with cement and . . . putting up a hundred foot or two-hundred-foot electric fence or something two miles high to stop planes. Big canopy over the country that would keep out all the shit coming over from Detroit. . .” And in 20 Cents Magazine, “The Canadian Journal of Anti-Americanism,” Curnoe published demonizing statements, such as “All American art in Canada to be exhibited in a degenerate art exhibit and then to be auctioned off in the States” (April 1970 issue).

Indeed, London’s rabid xenophobic brand of regionalism was at odds with the reality of the visual arts in London in the 1960s and 1970s, which had a greater diversity of artist identities, richness of creative activity, and sophistication of global perspectives than that which has been typically reinforced by the Heart of London mythology. A case in point was Eric “Ricky” Atkinson, who was head of the fine art department at Leeds College of Art in England before he immigrated to Canada in 1969 to found the fine arts program at Fanshawe College. He hired several artists from England, the Netherlands, and the United States as instructors (including Bonham) and invited an impressive roster of international artists as guest lecturers. Atkinson’s innovative, interdisciplinary program brought a wider vision to the London art scene than was possible under the regionalist/protectionist ethos espoused by Curnoe. Consequently, it was viewed as a threat to the regionalists and generated spiteful comments in the Free Press.

Hermen Goode’s First Attempt at “Heavier than Air Flight” at Thorndale, Ontario (film and event), 1972

As Bonham recalled, “I was not a Canadian and not a regionalist. My work would be the same wherever I lived. It’s what I do. But I was really hurt when I found out how much the London art scene hated me because I was an American.  . . . They thought Lyndon B. Johnson was my fault, the Black issues were my fault, and I was the one who caused the Vietnam War.”

Bonham expounded further on his experience: “I attended the first meeting of CAR (Canadian Artist Representation) and paid my fee to join. About two weeks later I went to another CAR meeting and as I came through the door Ron Martin was bouncing up and down like a baboon asking me what I was doing there. He said, “You aren’t Canadian. You can’t vote!” I talked to Jack Chambers about this. He was a pleasant fellow who cared about artists. CAR was his baby. He apologized to me, but told me the committee had decided that I couldn’t be a member of CAR. I told him that it wasn’t right. I wasn’t a draft dodger. I had moved to Canada to be a working artist, but was being cast as a shit-kicking American dog killer. Many of the artists who were there supported me and walked out of the meeting. Dorothy McCarthy walked out. Later, when I was teaching at the University of Western Ontario, Jack called to tell me that he didn’t agree with CAR’s policy to exclude non-Canadians.”

Unwanted or not, the former Marine made no apologies for being American and brazenly inserted himself into the cultural life of London, stirring the pot with dynamic energy, inventiveness, and artful anarchy. He openly challenged Curnoe’s notion of regionalism, which he considered debilitating for the visual arts, a narrow-minded and contradictory position that professed a commitment to complete artistic freedom while promoting open hostility and xenophobia towards American culture and artists.

In answer to Curnoe, Bonham’s first exhibition in London in 1970 at the McIntosh Gallery was a satirical, in-your-face spoof of American war machines invading Canada, replete with OPCAN (Operation Canada Tank) (1969), which wielded an eight-foot penis. As he explained, “Because London was such an uptight city, I made maps showing how the invasion would come up through Michigan to London.” And to call attention to the smug pretentiousness that characterized the insular local and Canadian art scene, he staged a caustic performance at 20/20 Gallery. He described the event: “So I hired some actors, one to play Barry Lord (an art critic at the time), and another to play Pierre Théberge (then a curator at the National Gallery). The actors got twenty dollars a piece. And I had another straight-looking guy play me wearing a Stars and Stripes shirt. Nobody knew it was supposed to be me because I wasn’t really known locally at the time. I wrote to them asking, if you were giving a talk at 20/20 what would you say? Pierre Théberge and Barry Lord replied, so I had the actual lines they would have spoken. The script went on and on with the actors playing Pierre Théberge and Barry Lord. The guy playing Bonham sat in the crowd and kept standing up and saying, “This is Shit! Do we have to listen to this?” It was the first performance I ever did. The 20/20 Gallery never again had such an event. Did Curnoe and the boys ever get upset!”[2]

Don Bonham and Miss 50 at the Spirit of Detroit hydroplane race on the Detroit River, 1973

In his biography THE WAY IT IS: The Life of Greg Curnoe, James King writes: “In speaking of Bonham, Greg was scornful and vindictive; for him the sculptor was a contemptible “asshole.[3]] Curnoe’s wife Sheila remembers that “Greg had had an argument with Don at 20/20 Gallery,” and “there was a falling out over this. . . . When Greg came home he was livid. . . . Greg said with great venom that he would get Don someday. He could barely contain his rage.”[4]

Ironically, despite the rift between the two artists, Bonham and Curnoe had more in common than not. Perhaps it was that London just didn’t have enough room to accommodate two bad boys of art. Both embraced popular culture and used the fabric of their lives as the source of their work; both were influenced by Dada and used found objects; both found beauty in machines and made non-functioning vehicles (for Bonham it was motorcycles and cars; for Curnoe it was bicycles); both despised pretentious art jargon; and both were mischievous. Like Curnoe, Bonham also thought that good art could happen outside of the major art centres, stating: “Any local area will always have creative people, but some of them don’t know just how creative they are.” While Curnoe rejected the major art centres for his own backyard, Bonham actively sought opportunity and adventure in the larger world, operating studios in London, Montreal, Toronto, Florida, New York City, and the Hudson Valley over the course of his career. He explained: “So I went to New York where the artists informed me that it was the centre of the art world, then I found myself in Toronto which I was told was surely the centre of the art world. Soon thereafter I traveled to Montreal which I was assured was the centre of the art world. And now I find myself in London, Ontario, which I am told is most definitely the centre of the art world. So I have come to the astute conclusion that the centre of the art world is 32″ below my ass at any given time.”

View of the installation of land vehicles in Don Bonham RCA Stranger in a Familiar Land Beaverbrook Art Gallery 2012. Photo: Roger Smith

In her book The Art of London 1830-1980, gallerist Nancy Poole emphasized the influence and control that Curnoe had on the local art scene: “It was Greg Curnoe whom the outsiders sought. It was Greg Curnoe who selected studios for them to visit. Artists knew that if they were dependent on the federal institutions for purchases and grant money, then visits by officials from the National Gallery and Canada Council were essential.  . . . According to Tony Urquhart, the young artists flocked to the new “Mr. Art London” hoping to gain favour.”[5] Artist Lynn Donoghue noted, “There was an “in” crowd and another set of people. If you couldn’t connect with the scene around Greg, you gravitated to Bonham.”[6] Those outside of the regionalist group were ignored by National Gallery curators Pierre Théberge and Brydon Smith when they visited London, or as Bonham stated, “Unless you were kissing Curnoe’s ass, he wasn’t going to bring the curators over to visit your studio.”[7] They were also not happy with “the inequity in the Canada Council,” with “jury visits and the general rigged nature of the whole art scene. [8]

In response to such a “closed-shop” situation, Bonham and a group of other London-based artists formed the Artists’ Co-operative to organize exhibitions which they financed themselves, and in which they exhibited “their own work on their own terms, circumventing the traditional gallery (public or commercial) system and presenting new work directly to the public.”[9] In June of 1970, they presented The Warehouse Co-op exhibition in a warehouse at the corner of Elias and Quebec streets in London. Showcasing work by Don Bonham, Robert Bozak, Michael Durham, Dave Gordon, Robin Hobbs, Terry Hughes, Steve Parzybok, and Jeff Rubinoff, it served to distinguish the Artists’ Co-operative from the ‘Heart of London’ group. The poster for the exhibition, which featured the artists standing in a field, has Bonham wearing his cowboy hat and smoking a cigarette like the iconic Marlboro Man. According to artist Michael Durham, “Being with Bonham was always an adventure. . . . The Warehouse Co-op show in 1970 was his idea. . . . In my memories of the early 70’s in London, Bonham cuts a giant figure.” [10]

. Poster for The Warehouse Co-op exhibition, London, 1970

Bonham went on to cause further public disruption with elaborate outrageous events through his corporate artistic alter-ego the Hermen Goode Aesthetics Racing Team (A.R.T.). “Hermen Goode’s First Attempt at Heavier than Air Flight” at Thorndale, Ontario (film and event, 1972) predated the daredevil parodies of Evel Knievel enacted by television’s Super Dave Osborne character played by comedian Bob Einstein His legendary activities involving sculpture in the form of vehicles were not staged within the high culture of the art world, but within the vernacular culture of racing. In 1972, he attempted to break the world speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah with his Bonneville Machine (1972) (which had no motor), and in 1973, he competed with his sputtering Miss 50 (1973) (which was powered by a 7 1/2 HP Mercury outboard engine) at the Spirit of Detroit hydroplane race on the Detroit River to bring the prized boat-racing trophy back to southwestern Ontario.

Bonham’s comical neo-Dada performance-interventions and films, which poignantly lampooned the foibles of macho male culture, and spoke to how female anatomy has influenced the design of machines in relation to the inextricable weave of biology, technology, and cultural myths that comprise today’s landscape, are meditations on failure. Blurring the line between art and life, his anti-hero always seemed to come up short or be disqualified. He explained that he had created the Hermen Goode Aesthetics Racing Team “because I raced cars on a dirt track when I was a kid, but I wasn’t very good. Out of the whole bunch of racers you have one winner, and then you have the rest of us. The Hermen Goode Aesthetics Racing Team is the rest of us.”  

. The Bonneville Machine (1972)

During his time in London, Bonham made a seismic impact on the local art scene, not only with his outstanding sculpture and performances, but also as a popular and influential teacher at H.B. Beal Technical and Commercial High School, the University of Western Ontario, and Fanshawe College. After leaving the Forest City, he went on to produce an extraordinary body of work, but that’s a whole other story.

The fact that Museum London has only two minor works by Bonham in its permanent collection, coupled with the McIntosh Gallery’s wrongful deaccessioning of Miss 50 (a significant sculpture designated as Canadian Cultural Property and the only Hermen Goode machine in the city), reads as a disservice to the legacy of an important artist, a blatant oversight that continues to reinforce a blinkered and highly selective view of the history of the visual arts in London. Despite such indifference and lack of appreciation, Bonham cherished his London years, remarking, “What a wild eight years I had in London. Times like that only happen once in a blue moon. To be honest, I loved London. It gave me my start, and it was a wonderful home base.”

. Don Bonham and Terry Graff 2012

Terry Graff is a visual artist, art writer, curator, and art educator who has served as director of four public art galleries in Canada (Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Mendel Art Gallery, Beaverbrook Art Gallery) and the artist-run Struts Gallery. Along with exhibiting his art regionally, nationally, and internationally, he has curated over 200 exhibitions, and written numerous articles, catalogues, and books on a diverse range of contemporary and historical art subjects. A recipient of the Fanshawe College Distinguished Alumni Award, he is currently working on a major book titled “Stranger in a Familiar Land: The Irrepressible Art and Life of Don Bonham.”

Endnotes:

[1] Edward Lucie-Smith, “I’m Here – Deal with It!”, in Bonham (artist publication), 2009.

[2] “Angels of Beauty: An Interview with Don Bonham by John K. Grande,” Wegway No. 5 (Spring 2003): 37.

[3] James King, THE WAY IT IS: The Life of Greg Curnoe, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2017), 219-220.

[4] Sheila Curnoe quoted from an email to Terry Graff on August 20, 2018, and message on August 16, 2018.

]5] Nancy Geddes Poole, The Art of London, 1830-1980 (London, ON: Blackpool Press, 1984), 141.

[6] Lynn Donoghue quoted in Jennifer Ollie Sinclair, Don Bonham, The Flying Machine Series, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 1988, 5.

[7] Don Bonham in “Don Bonham and Heather Fraser on Paterson Ewen and London”, March 31, 1988, Toronto, Ont., tape recording

[8] Dave Gordon, “The Warehouse Show in Retrospect,” 20 Cents Magazine, September 1970.

[9] Lenore Crawford, “Auto Displays Replaced by Art”, London Free Press, March, 1971.

[10] Michael Durham quoted from an email to Terry Graff dated Wednesday, September 19, 2018.t 16, 2018.

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