In his lifetime, Greg Curnoe was something of a paradox in the art world.
The famed London artist, known for his contributions to regionalism and pop art, was fiercely dedicated to his hometown. He resisted Toronto, yet found great success in its galleries. He was a regionalist, yet part of a larger movement. He’s been described as a “self-deluding elitist,” yet claimed to be a populist and never saw the fallacy of such a position. Curnoe saw himself outside high art, yet his work dwelled within its parameters.
Those who knew him say he was – and still is – hard to define, both as a person and as an artist.
The Way It Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe, the first monograph biography of the artist and former Artist in Residence at Western, is James King’s attempt to tease out the artist from the man and paint a comprehensive portrait of an individual regarded as one of the boldest Canadian artists of the second half of the 20th century. Published by Dundurn Press, the book hits the shelves this week.
“Within the artistic community in London, Curnoe is still a big name. He’s well respected by people in the know, but his reputation has diminished quite a bit since he died – I think because he was a regional artist. One of the reasons I wrote the book is I felt this was a life well worth exploring,” said King, who teaches English and Creative Writing at McMaster University and is an award-winning author of six novels and nine biographies, including books on David Milne, William Blake, Margaret Laurence and Lawren Harris.
“It was a very exciting project to work on – a way of making him known again. He deserves to be better-known,” he added.
Curnoe, an avid cyclist whose hand-built Mariposa bicycles featured prominently in his work, was killed in 1992 while riding with a cycling club near London. He was 55 years old.
“He went through a down time in his personal life and in his art. What’s really interesting is that he was actually finding his way back before he died, with the notions of community, Indigenous culture, various things like that. I think, if he had lived, there would have been another flowering, which unfortunately didn’t occur,” King noted.
He hopes The Way It Is, released in time for the 25th anniversary of Curnoe’s death, revives and contributes to the artist’s legacy. Curnoe was Western’s Artist in Residence in 1975.
One of the problems with writing about the great London artists – Curnoe and Jack Chambers – is they have been sanctified by the art establishment, taken at their own word, King explained. Extensive research and a series of lengthy interviews with Curnoe’s fiends and wife Sheila helped him meet the artist on the pages of his book and deliver something that showed the rebel artist as “a total person.”
“In the art community, Greg has a kind of halo – as does Jack Chambers – and I was trying, in a way, to remove the halo but still leave him as a real, whole person with major flaws,” he said.
“I was able to talk to a lot of people and piece together this distinction between what Greg may have thought he was, and who he really was, and tried to show both sides of it. I think what the book shows is that Greg could be very aggravating, difficult and self-centred, but on the other hand, he was a kind and generous person,” King continued.
“The (book) brings those two sides together to demonstrate, more than anyone else has done before, how his work functions as forms of autobiography.”
Curnoe’s use of colour is bold and dramatic in his works, despite the fact that he was partially colour-blind. The book showcases full colour images of Curnoe’s works and demonstrates the significance and impact of colour therein. In the book’s opening pages, King offers a close reading of one of Curnoe’s lettered works, Painting With Fugitive Pigments, depicting the word ‘life’ in watercolour block capitals.
“I put that at the beginning because I wanted to give a close reading before the book started so the reader becomes imbued with how we’re going to look at these images,” King said.
“If you look at those pictures, and you live with them, the way the surfaces are treated, the way the watercolour is placed on the paper, is supremely masterful. Synesthesia can take place and that’s what he’s trying to encourage.”
IF YOU GO
Join author James King at Museum London Thursday, Sept. 7 for the launch of The Way It Is, a biography of Greg Curnoe, one of London’s – and Canada’s – most innovative and subversive artists. Curnoe was Western’s Artist in Residence in 1975. The event starts at 7:30 p.m.