Making it Happen: John Boyle and London Regionalism

Joe Stable, Portrait of John Boyle, digitally manipulated inkjet print on paper, 6 1/2 “ x 4 1/2”, 2020

In the 1960s, London, Ontario was the birthplace of a new art movement, coined “Regionalism,” which challenged both the subject matter and social value of visual art. Nancy Poole, in her retrospective The Art of London 1830-1980, described the atmosphere in the city as “electric, with artistic energy and the expectations of the new artists arriving each month. As a result, London artists attracted the attention of the best national and international art critics.”Among these artists was John Boyle. Born in London in 1941, Boyle became a key contributor to the Regionalist movement because of his focus on authenticity, boundary pushing, and the creation of new initiatives.

By the mid 20th century, New York had become the acknowledged epicentre of Western art and culture. Its cosmopolitan allure and promise of instant fame attracted endless waves of talented young artists. However, in stark opposition to this pilgrimage, John Boyle and the Regionalists rejected the cut-throat culture of New York by staying in London and creating authentic works which reflected their own experiences. Refusing to believe that true art could only be produced in Manhattan, Boyle began painting his own land and people in the early 1960s, asserting that regional Canadian art was equal in relevance to those works produced by the major American cultural factories. “The current art scene is not an attractive one to me,” Boyle explained in an artist’s statement addressed to the National Gallery of Canada. “When a man concerns himself with the problems involved in ‘making it,’ building a reputation, keeping up with the latest fads, he capitulates to the same pressures and forces that govern the behaviour of every successful cog in the social structure.” Championing the Regionalist philosophy, Boyle believed that great art could be created anywhere. “No special knowledge or technique or club membership is required,” he stated in a retrospective essay. “All that is needed is a certain rigour mingled with an internal honesty.”

Among Boyle’s greatest artistic contributions to the Regionalist movement were his works depicting famous Canadians. Historical figures such as Emily Carr, Louis Riel, and the Black Donnellys were plucked from their contemporary surroundings and pasted into local scenery, existing in a strange half-reality outside of linear time. Portraying historical figures in locations recognizable to a Canadian audience served to simultaneously challenge the delusion that nothing of merit could grow in local soil and broaden the range of Regionalist subject matter. “Discovering and paying homage to Canadian heroes was a great source of joy and strength to me,” wrote Boyle, reflecting upon his early career, “because they taught me the obvious; that in a sampling of twenty-six million people there must be and are many great and wonderful human beings in every walk of life, and that I too had the possibility of doing important things.” Familiarity with Boyle’s choice of Canadian people, locations, and iconography is essential to piecing together his tableaux, a process which slowly unveils the many playful winks and nods the artist has snuck into his work.

Passion Over Reason – Emily 1976 Oil on canvas 60.96 x 121.92 cm

Before Boyle became integrated in the London scene, the movement’s pioneers had already challenged the value of the fine art establishment. After graduating from H.B. Beal’s Art Program in the late 1950s, Jack Chambers left London to study abroad in Spain, while Greg Curnoe enrolled in (and subsequently got kicked out of) The Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto. Both artists eventually returned to London and began the Regionalist phenomenon. As such, Boyle never felt the need to enroll in a big-city art school or European apprenticeship. “[Curnoe and Chambers] came home, and that gave me confidence. I didn’t have to take that big step because I was just home. It was natural to me,” said Boyle, reflecting upon the start of his career. “Not only the fact that they came back to London, but that they were really curious. They got excited if a young artist showed up who was doing some crazy work. Greg showed interest in my art very early on – before I deserved to have any interest shown by anybody.” With support from established professionals, Boyle gained the confidence needed to create his own authentic painting style, rather than mimicking New York’s latest art fad. Boyle’s layering of topographic paint blotches atop flat geometric backgrounds completely negates half-tone colours, creating the illusion that his subjects are popping out of the canvas to confront the viewer. This unique practice was spawned by the freedom of his non-traditional (entirely self-taught) approach to painting and a desire for immediate connection with his local audience. In his essay, Why I Hate Acid Rock, Boyle writes of his brief experience as an elementary art teacher in St. Catharines: “Art teachers have to stop teaching art. There can be no student stage. There are no skills to learn. There is no cut-off point between beginners and accomplished artists. Every honest discovery an honest person makes is an important work.”

The Regionalists’ decision to eschew the recognition offered by major art centres and to instead create in their native land was revolutionary. This rejection of conformity was initially scoffed at by the Euro/American-obsessed art critics. Boyle, however, chose to ignore all scrutiny and instead got to work painting in his own way. In From the Periphery, Boyle offered a bemused take on the pomposity of the contemporary art scene: “A parade of non believers comes to pass judgement – flippant or considered, it doesn’t matter. You have violated the tenets of their own faith in what has been. You are verminous.” Equipped with equal parts skepticism and satire, John Boyle is a fiercely intelligent comedian. His work is peppered with irony and wordplay, from cheeky self-portraits to floating cars, as seen in his iconic painting of The London Six. Speaking to the role of humour in his work, Boyle said: “I never like to take myself that seriously, so I like to mock myself mostly. The ideas that I hold most dear – I can make fun of any of them.”

The London Six 1984 Oil on canvas 65.79 x 96.52cm

Sometimes, however, Boyle’s humour landed him in hot water, as was the case with his 1966 work Seated Nude. A subversive play on the classical painting subject, Boyle’s piece is a wooden chair attached to a rectangular base on which the artist renders a double portrait of musicians Sleepy John Estes and Woody Guthrie in primary colours. On the chair itself, a white imprint is painted of a nude body that was once seated on the frame, with three paint blotches clearly outlining a set of male genitalia. These three dots, although tame by our contemporary standards, caused an outrage in London’s fine art community. Deemed “unsuitable for a public gallery” by Museum London curator Clare Bice, Seated Nude was banned from inclusion in a London Regionalist exhibition. “This made news,” Boyle recalled. “first in the London Free Press, and then other media picked it up across the country, so suddenly I went from being an absolute zero, nobody, to being someone who was at the centre of a controversy.” Tension mounted between artists and gallery officials, resulting in a public display of outrage from the Regionalists. Artists Bernice Vincent, Murray Favro, and Greg Curnoe stormed the museum and removed their respective pieces from its walls. Boyle’s art piece presented the London Regionalists with an opportunity to show their mettle, refusing to play by the constraining rules of fine art institutions.

Emerging from the Seated Nude fiasco with newfound confidence, the Regionalists sought alternative ways to showcase their art, while avoiding gallery politics. “There were some professors at Western, and some artists, and some other interested London people who wanted a gallery, and they wanted it to be independent of the more conservative approach that the public gallery in London took at the time,” explained Boyle. As a result, London’s first artist-run centre, the 20/20 Gallery, opened its doors to the public in the summer of 1966. This non-profit gallery was cooperatively managed and operated by London artists and volunteers, showcasing an impressive rotation of Regionalist works. “Artists since the 1960s have recognized the limitations imposed on them by reliance on the market that is accessible to them in public or commercial galleries, through the exhibition and sale of works of art,” stated Barry Lord in his essay Here is John Boyle When You Really Need Him. “The artists’ intent has been to extend the range of the public through these many methods of what may truly be called grass-roots democratization of the arts.”

Marconi 1974 Acrylic on paper 10.16 x 15.24cm

Each artist used his full range of talent to contribute to the Regionalist zeitgeist. Boyle seized every available opportunity, adding to the local scene through illustrated books, murals, theatre props, sets, stamps, videos, and prints. These alternative efforts to get Regionalist art into the public eye often led to off-the-wall collaborations, which sometimes expanded into their own separate projects. Enter the Nihilist Spasm Band; a “music” group founded by Boyle and his fellow artists in 1965. Initially formed to create a soundtrack for a short-film by Greg Curnoe, the project went on to become a much larger phenomenon. “Being a number of artists among this group of people,” Boyle said, “we got creative and people very quickly started making instruments – getting truck horns and attaching them to the kazoos – making kazoos out of other pieces of metal. Within three weeks, we had the makings of a band. The only thing we didn’t have was any knowledge of music.” Although they were initially the target of snowballs and flying saltshakers, the Nihilist Spasm Band has since become a beloved cult classic, jamming together for over fifty years – without any regard for tune, key, or rhythm. Ironically, the band achieved world-wide recognition as founders of the “noise music” genre. Twice touring Japan and collaborating with industry giants such as Sonic Youth and R.E.M., the Regionalists proved that their absurd authenticity could be transferred to any artistic medium.

Another zany initiative co-founded by Boyle was the Nihilist Party of Canada. Grounded in the complete rejection of social structure and hierarchy, this paradoxical fringe party lacked any true platform or representatives. “Everyone was a member of the Nihilist party, including non-members, and everyone was president of the Nihilist Party of Canada,” chuckled Boyle. The Nihilist Party was simply a method of bringing London’s counterculture crowd together under the thin veneer of a functioning political body. Through annual picnics, three-legged races, and Lacrosse games, the Regionalists arguably contributed a greater social value to their community than do many more traditional political initiatives. The group was indeed a party – albeit a social one.

The Nihilist Spasm Band in Performance, Music Gallery in Toronto, October 23, 2011, From left to right: Art Pratten, Murray Favro, John Boyle, Aya Onishi, Bill Exley, John Clement:     Photo credit:( unknown). 

On a more serious note, the Regionalists also founded a nation-wide support network for professional visual artists: Canadian Artists’ Representation / le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). Barry Lord described the important contribution that this organization, spearheaded by Jack Chambers, has made to the lives of working artists in Canada: “[It] established the principle and practice of artists’ rental fees for exhibitions – a now widely accepted notion that many curators and directors thought absurd when it was first proposed in the late 1960s.” John Boyle quickly became Ontario’s CARFAC spokesman. Jack Chambers said that their goal was to help Canadian “artists help themselves at a very realistic and practical level. By deciding to help themselves they become responsible artists and automatically help other artists as well.” By taking matters into their own hands, the Regionalists forged a national artists’ support network – which still flourishes today.

Midnight Oil, (detail of Tom Thomson) 1969
Oil on wood, flashing light, freestanding construction
243.84 x 248.92 x 83.82cm

In 1967, Greg Curnoe and Jack Chambers were approached by the National Gallery to exhibit their work. Curnoe boldly advocated for several more London artists to be included in the exhibition. They established The Heart of London, a Canada-wide showcase of eleven prolific Regionalists, with John Boyle among their number. That same year, Swinging London also premiered, “an exhibition of 24 London eccentrics which was organized and toured (across Ontario) by the 20/20 Gallery of London.” Two more exhibitions, Clare Bice’s Survey of London Artists at Museum London and Nancy Poole’s London S.W. at Stratford’s Rothman Gallery were featured in the two years following The Heart of London’s success. In The Art of London, Dr. W.S.A. Dale, the first Chairman of the newly-established Visual Arts Department at the University of Western Ontario stated that, in those years, “the whole country was caught up in a frenzy, . . . the process of ‘re-discovering traditional Canadian art . . . . Suddenly we became very conscious of our cultural heritage.”

Reflecting on this artistic movement a half-century later, Regionalism seems like a wonderfully absurd fever dream. It leaves the modern Londoner puzzled as to how a handful of creatives managed to wildly stir up their now-benign Forest City. However, the secret to Regionalism, as Boyle puts it, is that “it can happen anywhere. Anywhere where there is a group of crazy people who are determined to make stuff happen. They’ve got to have their own thing, and they have to use their own life material to figure out what it is.” Boyle has breathed new artistic life into every community he has touched, later going on to establish the Artists’ Cooperative in Niagara and volunteering as a founding board member of the Canadian Centre of the Arts in Owen Sound.

London’s vibrant art scene of the 1960s and 70s was not born of a perfect climate that was particularly receptive to artistic expression and innovation. It was willed to life by passionate individuals like John Boyle, who believed that art mattered, that Canadian art was the equal to all its worldly challengers, and that London, Ontario could be the centre of the art universe. “What John Boyle contributed was more than a saucy male nude self-imprint and a hot Kazoo in the Nihilist spasm Band.” It was an undying belief in the value of personal authenticity. Through his willingness to shatter the pre-conceived boundaries of the art world, Boyle (and his fellow Regionalists) proved that, with enough passion, confidence, and creativity, a single visionary artist could, and still can, change a city.

Xavier Wehrli is a student in the Foundations course at Bealart, H.B. Beal Secondary School, London, Ontario

References:
RNH Lord, Barry. “Here is John Boyle When You Really Need Him.” John Boyle A Retrospective, The Hearn/Kelly Printing Company Limited, 1991, pp.19- 32
FTP Boyle, John. “From the Periphery.” John Boyle A Retrospective, The Hearn/Kelly Printing Company Limited, 1991, pp. 7-16
JBI Boyle, John. Personal interview. 15 January 2020. (change date)
AOL Poole, Nancy. The Art of London 1830-1980. Blackpool Press, 1984.
A list of citations of quotes and excerpts from newspaper articles and unpublished papers is available upon request.
Permission to use images of John Boyle paintings has been granted by the artist.
Permission to use portrait painting of John Boyle was granted by the artist.
The John Boyle article  is the fourth publication of a series of articles and interviews from the Senior Artists Writing Project.
Centred.ca is
grateful to the London Arts Council for the funding of this project.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *