“You know, we had people, James Reaney Jr., for example, [come] in, and he and his wife are both art enthusiasts, and [they] said to me that they weren’t sure if they were gonna come see the show; they thought, “are we gonna see another Curnoe show?” But they said they couldn’t believe [it]; they were so happy that they came because they had no idea that these works existed and how different it was; how painterly it was . . . and it showed a side of Greg that they weren’t familiar with.” – Brian Lambert in conversation with Sarah Oakley, November 2021.
The relationship between Greg Curnoe and London Regionalism has been tightly bound since the latter half of the twentieth century – the peak of Curnoe’s career and influence. There is no doubt that the late London, Ontario, artist, was, and continues to be, a defining figure within the city’s visual arts community. As a contemporary Canadian artist, Curnoe fostered the work of his fellow peers in unprecedented ways by encouraging the accessibility of the arts, and in turn, he established a distinct art scene that became unique to the city of London and a generation of artists. Though it has been nearly thirty years since the passing of this legendary individual and visual artist, Greg Curnoe still provides immense inspiration and influence to the London art scene. And this past October, Western University’s McIntosh Gallery debuted a month-long exhibition of selected works curated by Brian Lambert, McIntosh’s collections manager.
The exhibition displayed sixty-two pieces that were part of an approximately 400-piece donation gifted to the Gallery by Curnoe’s wife, Sheila Curnoe, in 2018. “Greg Curnoe: What About Me?” ran amidst the city’s gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions that have curtailed in-person art exhibitions all around the globe. As Lambert explained in conversation, when What About Me? was first scheduled three years ago, nobody was anticipating the challenges of publicly displaying art in a time of social distancing and limited admittance for masked and vaccinated patrons in the relatively tiny space of the McIntosh Gallery. Fortunately, the exhibition was able to be presented at the considerably more spacious TAP Centre for Creativity (located on Dundas Street), and the venue hosted scheduled viewings and guided talks that were led by the exhibition’s curator (and personal friend of Curnoe’s) Brian Lambert.
Though the exhibition took place during a time of relative easing on pandemic restrictions, it still took some finessing to ensure the safety of gallery patrons and Lambert and his crew knew that all of their careful arrangements might have to be changed at a moment’s notice if word suddenly came down from health authorities. And perhaps this anxiety and uncertainty surrounding an exhibition of one of our most revered artist’s works, reminded all of us of the value and importance of the gallery-going experience which we had come to take for granted. After “sitting down” for a Zoom call with Lambert (as one does nowadays) the significance of this specific Curnoe exhibition became powerfully apparent to me. The very title of the show, “What About Me?” underlined a constant theme in Curnoe’s art; his insistence on the interconnectedness of art and life. It became clear in my conversation with Brian Lambert that this is an idea which still touches viewers whether they’ve known of Curnoe’s work for decades or are coming to it for the very first time.
Brian, your official title is as McIntosh’s “collections manager”, meaning that you are not usually the one doing the curating. How did this opportunity to curate an exhibition of the works of Greg Curnoe come about for you, then?
“I’ve curated shows since the early 1980s, but my job here [at McIntosh Gallery] doesn’t specifically name me as a curator. I’ve curated three different shows while I’ve been here, [and that was] just because I have a certain level of knowledge or expertise in certain areas… I was a friend of Greg’s, for example, [and] after Greg died, Sheila got in touch with me. Of course, I didn’t know her very well while Greg was alive because she was always in the background; Greg was always up at the front. [But] I knew her, and she knew me. Most of my time was either spent with Greg or their kids, because their kids were very creative. The kids were great at making films and music and everything, so, I was involved with them quite a bit, but never so much with Sheila – this was part of the reason for calling the exhibition, “What About Me?”, since Sheila was one of the reasons why we got all these works. I’[d] go over to visit for one reason or another and I would see something, like the hockey player [“Pretend That You Are Jack Evans No. 5”] (Figure 1) which had been down in the basement, and I came up one day and saw it there and just said to her, “Hey, can we have that?”. That [donation] was something around 400 pieces, and most of the works in that exhibition, with the exception of the Don Vincent photographs, Sheila has given us over the years, and she’s certainly given us much more. We focused on this collection because it reflects the nature of the works that he did when he was at OCA [Ontario College of the Arts, now known as OCAD].”
So, would you then say that you were given the authority as curator in the instance of this exhibition because of your connection to Greg?”
“Well, yeah. I’m a London boy; I knew Greg, I knew something about his personality. I dealt with him with a lot of business because I met him through my involvement with Forest City Gallery. I was curating shows there, so, I was working with Greg. Mostly I was curating music, but I did curate other shows as the years went by.”
Would you describe this exhibition as a significant project in your career and time working at McIntosh?
“This was a survey, really. I mean, curating is relative. Sometimes the curator is going out and finding artists. They could be from around the country or around the world, artists that have a similar kind of work, and they’re synthesizing an exhibition from various artists. So, that’s one kind of curating, the other is, as in my case, I’m taking the work of an artist that already speaks for itself and I’m just helping to arrange it in such a way that people can see it with some clarity. I think that’s a different kind of curating. The other shows I’ve done are similar. I did, I think in 2012, an exhibition that we called “Graphic Underground”, [that was] centred around the music scene in London but focused on the artwork that came out of that. […] Even though that was a huge amount of work for the curator, and in that case that was myself, I just felt that I was given an opportunity to document something that had happened in spite of me. I mean, I was part of that scene as well, I had that insight edge, but the thing that I was happiest about was bringing all the amazing artwork that had been done to people’s attention. […] So, from my point of view, it was an opportunity, not to have my name put out there, but to make people aware of all the fabulous artists that were doing stuff. It was the same with Curnoe, I was already aware of a lot of his work, but many people aren’t. This exhibition was an opportunity to bring these pieces to people’s attention.”
Considering that this was more of a survey-based curatorial experience because you had these “rarer” pieces in the collection and you wanted to put them on display for people; what did you anticipate the viewership to be like? What demographic did you think that this specific Curnoe exhibition would attract in the year 2021?
“Well, I knew that it was gonna be all the ‘old dogs’, like myself, and certainly those people that knew Greg and were aware of his work were there. But we had a lot of students. I think I did seven talks, [and] at least three of them were specifically for art student classes – there were two from Fanshawe, and then one from another school […] so, you know, that’s your ideal. It’s great to show it to the people that already knew his work. But it’s also great to just make younger people aware that Greg even existed. He’s sort of out of the limelight now, but he was a very significant figure in London art and making London a focus for national attention, especially back in the 1960s and 1970s. So, I think we had a pretty wide range of people coming through [the exhibition].”
When I attended your last of the seven talks, a couple of the people in attendance came up to me and said, “You know, I’m really happy to see a young person here.” I even ran into a classmate of mine who had just come on his own accord and he’s [also in his twenties]. That’s something I was surprised by because I’m in the art history program at Western, so, I’m aware of Curnoe and Regionalism. And if you go to Museum London there is always going to be a Curnoe piece on display. But in terms of common knowledge, it seems to be fading. What did you expect the turnout to be?
“We were anticipating that COVID was gonna break up more quickly than it did. I mean, my expectation is that if we had done an opening for the Curnoe show, we would have had 200 people there because there’s enough people in London that know who he is. As it was, not everybody could make it during the limited hours that TAP was able to open, and well, that’s disappointing. But still a lot of people came through. And I was happy about that.”
Again, touching on how you had expected the “old dogs” to show up, but you also witnessed a turnout of interested students. Does that reflect how you would describe the ways in which Curnoe’s work engages with younger generations today?
“Well, Greg addresses a lot of universal issues, for artists especially. And it was one of the things that I tried to stress. In the row of portraits that he did (Figure 2), for example, from his work at OCA, it shows how important it was for him to recognize the community that he was in. You know, he did it [at OCA] when he and a group of fellow students opened the Garret Gallery [once located at the corner of John and Stephanie Streets in Toronto, near OCA], and that way they could show their own work. I mentioned this in all my walk-throughs for this exhibition because it wasn’t just Greg looking out for himself. He recognized [that] chances to show their own work, especially because they were students, was pretty limited. So, he always found a way around it. And then when he came back to London and started his studio practice, he did the same thing.
None of the commercial galleries were gonna show his work, they were way too conservative. He had a string of galleries that he was involved with opening: Region Gallery, 20/20, and then ultimately, Forest City Gallery which was one of the first artist-run spaces in Canada. So, I think from that point of view, younger folks [and] younger artists can learn a lot. Because if you are depending on the existing system to introduce your work, I mean, some people can do it if your work is commercially viable, but if you are doing something that isn’t the first thing that people want to hang over their couch in their living room, you’re gonna have some trouble. Greg said, “If you want a place to show, just make one.” I think he’s a great example for young artists. He didn’t just sit back and wait for dealers to come to him. He was actively out showing his work to dealers and when that didn’t work, he literally opened his own galleries within the group. You know, he’s very community-minded, and I think that’s the important thing. If young folks can just have that sense of empowerment, if that was the only thing they saw from the exhibition, that would be good. Because I went through it, it was hard to find shows . . . So Forest City [Gallery] was great for me to show my work. Not regularly, but in a group of your peers, none of whom were doing the same kind of work as you but there were people willing to look objectively at what you were doing and give you feedback. It’s great to create that atmosphere. A commercial entity isn’t going to do that. They’re not going to create a community for you.”
Someone in their early twenties might not understand that importance [of a community] because of the advent of social media. If you can’t get your work shown by a commercial entity, you show your work online, not open up an entire gallery like Curnoe did. It’s as if Curnoe was the predecessor for expanding the accessibility for artists to display their own work. The online communities that form from that too, resemble the communities that Curnoe had established, such as the Forest City Gallery.
So, to round off, you were put in charge of this exhibition because of your personal affiliation with Curnoe. And you have said that this was just a survey of the 2018 donation from Sheila that was going to get put into the McIntosh’s collection anyway. However, was it difficult to separate your personal and professional decision-making when you were putting together this exhibition?
“Uh, yes and no. The most difficult thing was deciding what to put in because there was so much. There were so many works that I didn’t include. And part of that decision was based on that I had to decide what was going to be relevant. I mean, what did I want to be relevant . . . He was not afraid to work with other people. For example, the drawings at the back [of the exhibition] from “The Great Canadian Sonnet”, where he worked with David McFadden. Those works are some of my favourite and the only pieces within the exhibition that were completed during the 1970s. And, to sort of answer your question, I put those drawings in, not [necessarily] because they related to the main stress that I was trying to show, but because I really liked them – curator’s prerogative, I guess. But, outside of that, I limited the works to anything that he did prior to and up to 1964, where at that point his future started to gel and the kind of work that he was going to do moving forward. By 1964, he was becoming more politically motivated. You know, he made very strong statements that he thought all artists’ works should be politically motivated. Not necessarily to do with conservatives and liberals, but personal politics, it should always be about something – he was always against pretty pictures. So, I thought that the last two pictures [in the exhibition], “Dada!!” and “Mother!” (Figure 3), sum up where he was in 1964 and they show the direction that he was gonna take from there. He was going to talk about specific things, he wasn’t just going to paint or talk about the things that were familiar to him or interested him . . . He started to make statements, instead of “Here is a list of the boys that I went to school with” . . . although he continued to do that. He went back and forth, but he was very politically involved with all sorts of issues. He died riding a bike, he was an advocate for many things, but that was one of his main focuses, and there wasn’t any reference to that in the exhibition. But he was always pushing, always politically involved, whether it was artists’ issues or bicycling. […] That’s sort of where I was at during the curating process. The exhibition was everything from ’64 and back; and the early works from OCA, they were just studies and what not. But in those studies, you can see what a really good visual artist he was. The works on paper that were just pinned on the wall . . . I mean, some of his graphic abilities were outstanding. You still have that sense in his later works, but he abandoned his expressionist drawing style to develop a more considered approach, with emphasis on content. Also, the paintings on panels that he did at OCA (Figure 4), I tried to show the European influences – there were very few American influences, and that’s part of his political stances. He was very much opposed to the cultural imperialism that was sent ahead by the U.S. . . . Greg was an incredible artist beyond all of the politics, he was just a natural artist. That’s what I was trying to show in those works.”
To put on this exhibition was a collective decision made by McIntosh, then?
“Well, most people had never seen the bulk of these works. All the works that he did between 57 and 1960 during his time at OCA. I mean, a few people had probably peeked through them, but they had never been in an exhibition before. I think a couple of pieces may have been shown at the Garrett Gallery, for example, which as I mentioned, was one of the artist-run galleries that Greg was involved with establishing . . . But the Garrett Gallery would have been during the 1950s. Very few people had ever had access to this work, and since then, no one has probably seen them. So, the motivation is that. We had something that nobody had ever seen before from a pretty significant figure in London art, if not Canadian art. It was a real prize. But the work itself is significant for researchers and just people who are interested. We had people, James Reaney [Jr.], for example, come in . . . and you know, he and his wife are both art enthusiasts, and both of them said to me that they weren’t sure if they were gonna come see the show. They thought, “Are we gonna see another Curnoe show?” But they said they couldn’t believe [it], they were so happy they came because they had no idea that these works existed and how different it was, and how painterly it was, and it showed a side of Greg that they weren’t familiar with.”
The success of McIntosh Gallery’s exhibition, “Greg Curnoe: What About Me?”, reflects the sustained legacy of Curnoe in the twenty-first century; not only as an artist but also as an individual who made an impact on London’s visual arts community because of his efforts to encourage the visibility of flourishing artists. As Lambert concluded, if there is anything that a new generation of artists today can take away from the work of Greg Curnoe, it should be the admirable determination to nurture a connected community despite the ever-present pressure of commercialization within both the global and local artworlds.
A sense of isolation within various social communities has been imposed and widely felt because of the ongoing pandemic which has nearly spanned over the last two years. However, this exhibition offers hope to those involved within artistic communities, to look to the future for a glimmer of normalcy and the return to congregating within the comfort of gallery spaces once again. “Greg Curnoe: What About Me?” and Lambert’s lasting connection with the esteemed
London artist, can remind – or perhaps inspire – all of us that building personal and professional relationships is still possible in the changing conditions and technology of this socially-distanced era.
Sarah Oakley, raised in London, Ontario, is currently a fourth-year student at Western University, studying sociocultural anthropology and art history.
This article is part of the “Young and Emerging Visual Arts Writers Project,” which is gratefully supported by the London Arts Council .