For Art Toronto 2020 we have focused on Greg Curnoe’s interest in place, history, his surrounding environment and his politics.
Greg Curnoe was many things: Pop-artist, Regionalist, musician, painter, writer… the list goes on. All of his work, however, deals with the everyday and is often auto-biographical. He observes, comments and records through both images and words. His text based works are bold statements of conceptual art as you need to read in order to “see” the image. The lettered works are some of his strongest and we are featuring a key text based painting created within the last year of Greg’s life.
“(Mis) Deeds #1” is from a series of 5 large lettered stamp pad ink and watercolour paintings that explored the history of his property on Weston Street in London, ON. In the Fall of 1990 there were legal questions concerning the Eastern edge of his property. This started a 2 year long quest to trace the history of the property by searching the deeds and abstracts of the property records. His research took him all the way back to the Paleo-Indian Period (8600 BCE). He also interviewed descendents of settlers and First Nations Peoples. The resulting 5 watercolours list the names, in order, of each property owner. “(Mis) Deeds #1” was the first one completed and interestingly not in chronological order of ownership. Perhaps it was “The Crown” that Greg wanted to start with. Curnoe described: “We live in a culture where pre-existing cultures lived and live. They have survived in isolation from the culture of the City of London, both within the city and in areas of original settlement that date back to around 1690, fifteen miles away. They have been omitted from most books of local history”. Through the “Deeds” watercolours and the subsequent books “Deeds / Abstracts” and “Deeds / Nations”, Curnoe had a new understanding of his Canadian identity.
Throughout his career, Curnoe had an ongoing interest in the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Many works reference Louis Riel and the Shawnee hero Tecumseh. He personally visited the battle sites, hung postage stamp Louis Riel curtains in his studio and owned a bust of Tecumseh. The watercolour “Tecumseh with Batoche Fragments” is from 1980 and part of the “Zone” series of watercolours. Zone Township is outside of London where Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames. Greg visited the site as well as Batoche Saskatchewan, the historic battle site which resulted in the defeat of Louis Riel and his Métis forces. Here, in the watercolour, he combines both leaders, paying tribute to their bravery and untimely deaths. Zone is also important because of Greg’s interest in the French poet and Dada champion Apollinaire. In 1913 Apollinaire wrote a poem called “Zone” that is about a walk in Paris in which the poet moves from 1 zone to another. Greg made a series of watercolours repeating the word Zone, some written with a french accent, thereby connecting his interest in place, history and Dada.
The other lettered watercolours that we are featuring reveal Greg’s sense of humour and his politics. In November 1987 Greg had a pivotal exhibition at YYZ Gallery in Toronto called “I Tell Stories”. The all-text based exhibition brought new attention to his work. He re-emerged on the Toronto scene and his work was now re-contextualized within a conceptual framework. He wrote: “Are you going to be able to see my show at the YYZ or will I have to describe it to you? – since it’s all texts and poems I could send them to you – but since they are also paintings, I can’t – but, I think you will like the quotes I have invented for Brian Mulroney, like “Anti-Americanism is a crime against nature”. The free trade agreement was happening at the time of their making and Greg disliked the agreement. The watercolours reveal Curnoe’s tongue-in-cheek nature and his passion for the Canadian national identity.
Perhaps one of his most iconic images is “America”, a lithograph made at the Banff Centre in July 1989. Here, Curnoe has re-drawn the map of North America, omitting the United States. Growing up 2 hours away from the US/Canada border, Curnoe was heavily influenced by US culture and was aware of border disputes. The statement by removing the US matches his views on cultural imperialism.
Greg Curnoe was born in London on November 19, 1936. From 1954-1956, Curnoe attended H. B. Beal Technical and Commercial High School in London and later studied art at Kitchener’s Doon School of Fine Arts (1956) and the Ontario College of Art in Toronto (1957-1960).
Upon returning to London in 1960, Curnoe became a highly motivated artist-community organizer. He co-organized the first art “happening” (1962), co-founded Region Magazine (1961-90), Region Gallery (1962-63) and the Forest City Gallery (1973- ). He also played a key role in the founding of the Nihilist Spasm Band (1965), a collection of artists that created “music” on homemade instruments. In 1968, along with Jack Chambers, Tony Urquhart and Kim Ondaatje, Curnoe became one of the first members of CARFAC, an artist collective that advocates for artists’ rights.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Curnoe exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally. In 1967, Curnoe received a prestigious mural commission for the Dorval International Airport in Montreal. He represented Canada at the Sao Paulo Bienal (1969) and at the Venice Biennale (1976).
Curnoe’s artwork has been included in major exhibitions including “Heart of London” (1968) National Gallery of Canada, “Greg Curnoe: Retrospective” (1981) Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal and “Greg Curnoe: Life & Stuff” (2001) Art Gallery of Ontario. His artwork is included in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, National Gallery of Canada, Oakville Galleries, Vancouver Art Gallery and in many other prominent public and private collections.
On November 14, 1992, Greg Curnoe was struck from behind while riding his bright yellow Mariposa bicycle with the London Centennial Wheelers. He was pronounced dead later that day at Strathroy Middlesex General Hospital. He is survived by his wife Sheila, children Owen, Galen and Zoe, brother Glen and sister Lynda.