The COVID-19 pandemic of the last year and a half has given rise to a plethora of questions relating to morality, economics, sustainability, social responsibility and oppression. Many of these subjects are interwoven and can seem overwhelming to engage with when packed all together into one sentence; even more so when we question how art is implicated within every single one of these discussions.
Local London, Ontario, artist, Kim Moodie, offered his perspective on the matter of visual art’s engagement with politics; and more generally, the purpose for creating artistic works in the era that we are living in today. Moodie is a prominent name at the city’s University and within London’s arts and cultures scene. The established art venue, Embassy Cultural House, summarizes the artist’s accomplishments by stating that he “has exhibited extensively across Canada and in Mexico and the USA [and] his work is held by collections of numerous museums, university art galleries, and corporate and private art collections” (Embassy Cultural House, n.d.). Among the reputable Canadian art institutions that have collected Moodie’s works throughout the decades are “the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Museum London, the McIntosh Gallery and the Algoma Art Gallery”.
The art world today is vast and global, so what does it mean to be considered a “local” artist? How does geographical context influence the reception of art? How do macro, meso, and micro social issues turn up within creative images, and what control, if any, does the artist have over the meaning and interpretation of their work? These are questions that all artists are likely to ponder throughout their careers, and these are questions that Kim Moodie himself has grappled with as not just an artist, but also a professor and mentor.
As a now retired associate professor at Western University, Moodie continues to maintain his artistic practice. He answered my phone call with the greeting, “I’m in my studio.” Having been based in London for most of his career, Moodie has not always practiced, worked, or even lived in the Forest City. He grew up in Sault St. Marie, but then obtained his Honours Bachelor of Fine Art from Western University. After graduating from the University in the 1970s, Moodie pursued a graduate program in Montreal at Concordia University. Circumstances regarding Moodie’s personal relationships eventually drew him back to London, but his career has also been significantly defined by bouts of time spent in Toronto and Montreal. When asked about the time that he spent in these larger cities during the 70s and 80s, he notes that:
“In Toronto, you have a lot more access to galleries and very good artists; and they were competitive . . . I had connections in Toronto to various galleries; I was picked up by one dealer, then a couple dealers in Montreal, then a dealer in New York.”
Ultimately, Moodie concludes that, “all those [experiences] helped me advance my career.” Having established connections within more urban art centres, Moodie identifies the teaching opportunities presented to him at Western University as the main magnet which drew the alumnus back to the city. Moodie reflects on how the time that he spent in Toronto and Montreal early on in his career, influenced his personal philosophy and artistic practice and how London, in turn, has reflected and complemented those ideologies:
“I’ve had numerous shows in both Montreal and Toronto. It gives you some exposure. But London was always a great city in terms of being exposed to great artists such as Pat[terson] Ewen and Duncan [de Kergommeaux] and Greg Curnoe and Jack Chambers. I’m a bit of a socialist at heart. Even though I have had a very good gallery in New York [represent me], and I have shown in the U.S. and Mexico, that’s not really my approach.”
Moodie’s “socialist tendencies” jibe pretty well with some of the social politics of today when many artists are striving to resist the commodification of their art. Moodie presented his take on this eternally relevant question that practicing contemporary artists still grapple with today:
“People who are famous, some of them do quite well that way but somehow the fame and the collectability of the art takes over what they are trying to say, to some degree; not in every case of course . . . I’ve had some opportunities, I’ve actually had dealers – more than one – say, “Make more of these.” I don’t believe in that at all. It’s more about what you want to do personally with your art. It’s just a different thing. I’m not condemning anybody or their approach to making art, it’s just thinking about what you want to do . . . I am interested in having some sort of freedom in making my work, and there are very good artists in London, [who] are able to get away from that commodification and exhibit in major centres.”
What is it about London that allows artists more freedom within their practice, as opposed to working in Toronto or Montreal? This is a question that sounds backwards when it is presented, since London is a smaller city centre that has long been revered for its regionalism. A concept such as regionalism could imply less artistic diversity if the art and the artists are geographically bound to one place. However, Moodie, who has never seen himself as a regionalist, has had a different relationship to the London art world. He acknowledges his admiration for Greg Curnoe who is greatly associated with London regionalism, as well as Patterson Ewen. Yet, Moodie cites the sense of “acceptance” by a larger “community” that he has experienced here and says that atmosphere also encouraged him to establish his career in London:
“I think of course art is self-expression, but in order for it to be good art, it has to have the ability to be discursive in a community. So a person making art about whatever issues that they have, if they don’t broaden that discussion to a larger community, talk about how it relates to a broader perspective, then likely, it’s pretty bad art, to be honest. […] One thing about working in London, is it’s never been a place where you’ve felt like there was an established theme – artistic movements such as modernism, for instance. When I went to school in Montreal, modernism-formalism was prevalent in the city, and there was a big push to work like that. But London was never like that. London was more about, you know, you make your art about what interests you, and the community will accept that. And it will allow you to grow, so that was really excellent.”
Moodie has certainly played with this creative freedom that working in London has afforded him throughout his career. While the artist has always worked with mixed media, Moodie recently debuted his first photographic exhibition, Any Dream Will Do, in 2016. The artist stood in front of the camera himself and created a captivating sense of time through the visual movement that is conveyed within the unique portraiture. This ability to explore and exhibit newer works that use a different medium like photography, authenticates Moodie’s description of London as an art community that fosters growth and independence.
The idea of a “community,” which Moodie strongly values, is inevitably bound with politics and social responsibility. How do art communities translate into or function as social communities? How do members’ values and morals align with one another in order to belong to a collective group that shares some sense of commonality? It is important to make clear that an art community is not only comprised of the artists; the viewers are also part of the art community. Considering this breakdown of what constitutes a community, how do artists in London, Ontario receive this sense of “acceptance” that Moodie has cited, from fellow artists and viewers consuming their work? Moodie’s current practice very much navigates these considerations when it comes to producing “art that means something.” Much of the artist’s work focuses on the use of symbolism and meaning, while having a strong concern to produce art that can function socially and politically. Moodie states that:
“I certainly work with a lot of symbols, and I really don’t know today how important that is. But when I was younger, the symbols represented and critiqued things like colonialism, ahistoricism. We’d get into those sorts of discussion. Today, there’s a lot of discussion from a broad number of perspectives. There’s feminist discussion, aboriginal [Indigenous] discussion, people who come from other parts of the world . . . And, in a psychological way, of course, it’s important, because people have to identify with something, represent some sort of cultural belief of themselves. And these discussions are moved forward by the symbols. So, any artist today has to think about what these things represent. Whose cultural toes you’re stepping on? What you can make yourself about [depending on] where you’re from? Your thoughts on multiculturalism and where you’re putting that? What you can make so that you don’t infringe on other people’s cultural background and misrepresent them?.”
Moodie’s thoughts are valuable when we consider the political climate that we are living in today. During the past year and a half of the global pandemic, we have witnessed racially based crimes committed in the United States and right here in Canada; specifically, the recent terrorist attack on a London Muslim family in June. We have begun to listen to Black, Indigenous, and persons of Colour’s voices from artists who are exhibiting their work in public galleries and powerfully engaging with the political realities of this time to encourage awareness.
So, how does art engage with social and political climates that are ever-changing? Moodie is clear that “art has to mean something”, and he presents his own account for his personal navigation of art and politics at the present time in his career:
“A lot of my work these days has to do with memory and aging, I think that people from various backgrounds need to speak for themselves, so my work, more specifically these days, deals with discussions of romanticism, aging. You know, I’m 70 years old … One of the things that I try and deal with, is nobody’s perfect; I’m not perfect, and I don’t know anybody who is perfect, and so I try to deal with that: How do you discuss taking certain joys in things? And then what do you do if somebody else says you shouldn’t take joy in that? I mean what do you like, enjoy and why? Music, great, but what type. Do you reminisce about people you were close to who passed away? So, this is complicated, is it healthy? Sensuality – you know, very bluntly, do you enjoy sex? What types, with whom, under what condition? Maybe that’s complicated too? Do you enjoy eating various foods? Do you enjoy having a drink? Or, something like that. It’s not that simple. None of these things are excessive, but its more about, do you just enjoy life? Do you enjoy regrets? Pondering over what went wrong and what went right. I think those are important discussions.”
Moodie’s statement about the direction of his current practice describes the evolution of the themes and symbols that he has worked with in the past, to the issues that he focuses on today. For instance, in his early career, he did use symbols that represented politically heavy themes, such as colonialism and ahistoricism. However, now Moodie is concerned with engaging with broader themes and experiences, such as personal relationships and individual sensations that are likely to align with a majority of viewers, regardless of individual background. Works with titles such as, Hope, War, Love, Peace (Figure 4), reference these prevalent and universal experiences that Moodie is drawing on more closely in his later career. Specifically, in this recent piece from 2016, Moodie’s use of colour and space composes an exciting and bright graphic image. Yet there is a sense of emotional connotation as a result of the loaded topics that are explicitly referenced in the title of the work, such as peace and war.
“I’m discussing mortality because I’m seventy years old, Ha ha! You know, I have a lot of friends who have died. It becomes an issue in your head – what was your contribution, what was their contribution? What is the journey? So, I’m focusing a lot on that. I had different focuses when I was younger, but that seems to be a larger focus these days.”
While Moodie’s present artistic focus has changed as a result of his age and his relationship to life itself, he does assert that London is a receptive context for social and political art: “I think that London has a lot of people in it who care a lot about the issues that are happening at this time.” However, while Moodie acknowledges that the City is accepting and receptive to political art, he does state that, “I wish that a little more of the work that I see in London by younger artists was politically-based, because that’s a big part about what I motivated me when I came to London and started working.” But, Moodie does reference members of the Visual Arts Faculty at Western University, stating that he is pleased to hear of the politically engaged work that distinguished professors are producing:
Overall, there are several artists at the University, artists like Patrick Mahon, who works with groups that are incredibly politically and socially motivated. There’s others in the faculty who also take a social political approach – Kelly Wood, for example, and her work on waste and commodification. I like Sky Glabush’s social activism, the time working in a prison for example. I think that all of the above very important. And various members of the art history department also working on social concerns, Sarah Bassnett, and Kirsty Robertson for example.. . . Actually, the faculty at Western is excellent in the broader perspective . . . So, I have admiration for those [artists,teachers]. I did work on some of those topics earlier on, and I always felt that I was trying to do something with a social-political nature to it, and that was very important to me, always important to me.”
Moodie offered his perspective on how the community could be bettered for young artists who are pursuing their career in London:
“The community really needs . . . a revitalization with another predominant exhibition space. You know, the Embassy Cultural house became established online and that was a great space, and a lot of the shows that they are doing online are socially-politically based and I think that’s fantastic, truthfully, because that’s probably the reason that I’m in the art world in general. Art should help the world. That’s it! It shouldn’t just be about establishing fame or recognition; art should help the world. Now, that’s a very broad discussion of how it should help the world. Whether or not it does is unimportant, the effort is important.”
London has distinct visual art institutes, that being Western University, Fanshawe College, and Beal Secondary School’s visual art program. Having been educated at Western University and living in London for much of his professional career, Moodie shared his experience with the collaboration that occurs between these three institutions; and whether or not the interactions between these three schools has changed since the 1970s and 80s.
“Except for “Satellite Space,” downtown, you know, I don’t think it’s changed that much to be honest. I think these institutions are very removed from each other and I don’t think, and in fact, I will say this quite clearly, I don’t think there’s much collaboration between Western, Fanshawe and Beal Art, and I don’t think that there ever really has been, except for maybe in the 70s at some point. I’ll say this, and you can print this. Everybody keeps their “thing” to themselves. I mean they try, they definitely try, but I don’t think it’s really worked that well and there could be a much bigger effort. I mean, they all produce students, and a lot of those students stay in London, but there could be a much better collective effort . . . The gallery of Museum London has been very important, can’t argue with that. The McIntosh gallery has been very important. The space they have downtown, the Satellite [Gallery], is important, especially since it is open to a breadth of artists. But I don’t think cohesively there has been that pronounced of an effort. And I think that’s unfortunate . . . And I’m not saying I did anything too much to make that happen either. I did not.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global art world in many ways. Issues surrounding economics, politics, and social responsibility have infiltrated art communities as they have not been immune to global events. However, art can engage with politics and current events. The extent to which this will occur is subjective to each artist, but there has been and always will be a place for art to incite much needed social and political change. Professor Kim Moodie has practiced and taught visual arts during various political climates throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the social landscape will only continue to change. The art world can be intimidating for burgeoning artists of today. However, Moodie’s career and philosophy offer encouragement to us all to seek both freedom and community in art.
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 .