Book review: Renegade artist revealed

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Despite the best efforts of James King in his well-written biography of Greg Curnoe, the late London artist will remain, to some, a touchy, often unsympathetic personality.

In The Way It Is, the Hamilton-based writer — author of biographies of Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland and Farley Mowat, among others — tells the tale of a talented, sometimes abrasive young man whose penchant for rebellion could render him controversial to many and irksome to others. It is a colourful portrait and one that will afford local readers a treasure trove of nostalgia, as well as much room for reflection.

King has done his homework. He takes Curnoe through his childhood in London with two siblings, a hands-on mother and a father who, although originally scornful of his son’s insistence on what he considered a frivolous career in art, was later supportive of Curnoe’s unusual choices.

Curnoe attended South Collegiate Institute, where he had been a loner, before switching to Beal Tech on Dundas Street, a school that fostered his already evident inclinations.

His sister Lynda Curnoe recalls: “Whether Greg had changed by the time he went to Beal, or Beal changed him, I don’t know. But this program was the catalyst that changed him from a home-loving teenager adept at drawing cartoons to a strong individual, and a serious artist with a keen sense of direction.”

The sense of direction Lynda spoke of became more obvious as a motivated Greg Curnoe moved from Beal to the Doon School of Fine Arts, near Kitchener, a venue he found “stultifying” to, in 1957, the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in Toronto.

King is astute in his analysis of Curnoe’s experience at the college, a school the disgruntled student felt emphasized form at the expense of content.

“OCA was dull,” Curnoe complained. “It was also sterile. The instructors were formalistic, pure and simple.”

He later explained that while there he had not wanted to produce dreary, imitative art, which, although correct in required elements, would lack imagination. He declared: “I didn’t fail OCA. OCA failed me.”

With attention to detail and with a crisp writing style, King outlines Curnoe’s next moves, the most important of which was to leave Toronto, return to his London roots and to embark on the Southwestern Ontario “regionalism” that he himself once described as the building block of his career.

It was then, too, that Curnoe embraced Dadaism, the artistic movement that flouted convention to devise its own artistic ethos.

At the time, critic Robert Fulford described Dadaism as a scrapping of traditional art forms for new and irreverent forms of expression. “It is,” he wrote, “non-art with a non-message, the artist’s insane response to an insane world.”

Initially, King points out, Dadaism gave Curnoe a focal point for self-exploration, a process that took the maverick artist into lettering, collage and graphics (comic books) that were to become Curnoe trademarks. In doing so, Curnoe transferred household objects and everyday items into the essentials of art.

He was, King explains, “an enthusiastic collector of ephemera” and much of his early work featured candy wrappers, match books, coasters, bus transfers, theatre tickets, tin-can labels, and a collage like Drawers Full of Stuff (1961) set the tone.

King examines Curnoe’s professional life after his rejection of the Toronto metropolitan scene and his return to London with an emphasis on the painter’s love of bicycles and cycling, a pastime that “epitomized the stripped-down relationship between form and function that so appealed to him.”

Curnoe loved the combination of physically demanding competitive sport and painting and it was as if, poet-friend Christopher Dewdney recalled, “Greg had been made for cycling.”

King adds that for Curnoe, “bicycles quickly became objects of beauty that could inspire him to make his own objects of beauty. The individual parts of that mechanism . . . wheels, spokes, handlebars, brakes, pedals, and chains . . . called out for the eyes of the artist to refashion them on plywood or in watercolour.”

King is interesting, too, in his appraisal of Curnoe’s prickly approach to issues of the day. A self-described anarchist, Curnoe founded, in 1963, the Nihilist Party of Canada, a group that ridiculed and satirized establishment standards. This was followed by the formation of the Nihilist Spasm Band (Curnoe on kazoo and drums), a motley group one critic labelled “the squawking mouthpiece” of a bankrupt political left.

There seems little doubt, from King’s account, that Curnoe was a bit of a domestic tyrant, a head of the household who believed women should know their place as helpmates to men. When his wife, after three children, wished to learn to drive and to return to school, Curnoe was opposed to both ambitions.

Disturbing, too, is Curnoe’s obsessive and virulent anti-­Americanism — a stance from which he never deviated and one that comes across as smug, tiresome and juvenile. He delighted in drawing maps of North America in which he connected Canada and Mexico and eliminated the United States.

King sees Curnoe, who died in a cycling accident in 1992, as an intelligent, exceptionally talented rebel, a defiant outsider who questioned conventional opinion and chose his own path. The originality of his work, his prolific output and his astonishingly effective use of colour are examined, and a portrait emerges, in a well-researched and beautifully illustrated book, of a gifted renegade who left his mark on the Canadian art scene.

Nancy Schiefer is a London freelance writer.

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