Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society 10th Anniversary Exhibition at the Edmonton Art Gallery and What it Stands For

by Terry Fenton

I boast of some involvement in the conception of ECAS. A decade ago, while visiting the studio of Terry Keller, I suggested that his recent work should be exhibited, should be seen. He observed that the prospect of exhibition in Edmonton was unlikely; for one thing he wasn't represented by a dealer, for another he'd recently had an exhibition at the Edmonton Art Gallery. As I'd worked in public art galleries for many years, I knew that a local artist couldn't expect yearly exposure in the context of a public art gallery, and the possibility of exhibition by a local art dealer was – as for many abstract painters and sculptors – a prospect equally remote. As an alternative, I suggested that he and some other artists in the city take matters in their own hands and mount an exhibition of their own work.

That was easier said than done, of course, but to my surprise and delight, Keller and his colleagues did just that. In fact, they did considerably more; they formed the Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society (ECAS). For ten years ECAS has mounted an annual exhibition; in addition, its members have managed to meet regularly and publish a newsletter of substance. In the interim, some of the founding members artists have left, others have joined – over the years ECAS has expanded to include like?minded artists from other places: Saskatchewan, New York, Florida, Texas – even England and Germany.

ECAS has always struggled to stay afloat yet, to its credit, has never failed to mount its annual exhibition. That exhibition is seen by artists and art lovers from Edmonton and elsewhere. It's occasionally reviewed, usually with references to "the same old stuff" meaning, I suppose, more or less the same artists. This comes as no surprise; as the Monty Python crew observed years back, our culture has come to expect "something completely different;" novelty displaces quality. To be sure, ECAS exhibitions have been uneven, if virtually by definition: how can any exhibition that includes so many artists at so many stages of development be anything but? But unevenness is by no means sameness, so to the serious viewer the annual ECAS exhibition always offers surprises, and with them the comparisons that surprise inevitably provokes. No, that's not "the same old stuff" and, yes, that's what ECAS is all about.

Because of its narrow focus on painters and sculptors, most of them abstract, ECAS has been called an exclusive club. So it is, but unlike many other arts organizations, this club's membership isn't limited arbitrarily. Furthermore, it gets by largely through the resources and efforts of its members: each member chips in to support the show, a collaborative effort and a rarity in today's art world.

Of course, artists' organizations are by no means new, but self-supported ones are not as common as they once were. Most have existed for mutual support and public exhibition. In Canada there have been limited Groups, famously the Group of Seven, the Painters Eleven, the Regina Five. Each succeeded in drawing attention to their members; in fact it could be said that the Group of Seven's success all but eclipsed a subsequent generation of Canadian artists. When the Group expanded in 1933 to become the Canadian Group of Painters, its impact diminished. The Group of Seven's grip on the public imagination overwhelmed the CGP and it faded away. After WWII, the Painters Eleven in Toronto (1953?1960) was amalgamated to promote ambitious abstraction. It was disbanded largely because it succeeded. The Regina Five was not a formally organized group, but rather a catchphrase arising from an exhibition circulated by the National Gallery of Canada in 1961 entitled "Five Painters from Regina." Although the group soon dispersed, the name stuck and the members continue to reunite.

Later, and somewhat less famously than the Group of Seven, came the Contemporary Art Society of Montreal (1939?48). A less limited organization than the Group, its members included its founder, John Lyman, Philip Surrey, Jori Smith, and the remarkable Goodridge Roberts. The CAS stood for international modernism, what might more aptly be called post?impressionism or fauvism as practiced by the School of Paris. Although they stood against the official taste of the time (especially as exemplified by the Royal Canadian Academy and the National Gallery of Canada, which tended to avoid them until long past the Society's demise) they banded together equally in the face of public indifference and limited exhibition prospects.

ECAS serves much the same purpose as the Contemporary Arts Society, with which it shares two words, most of an acronym, and a complex of attitudes – but the environment it reacts against has changed beyond recognition. 50 years ago the art world in Canada was relatively insignificant, today it is vast and varied, yet within this vast and quasi?official environment, modernism has been besieged for more than two decades. ECAS has assembled to protect, preserve, and when possible, advance its values. This seeming conservatism hasn't made its task easier in an environment that favours novelty.

The artists involved vary in age, experience, and accomplishment, but some characteristics distinguish them. Most are abstract painters and sculptors, although a few representational artists have slipped in. If they share a fundamental value, it's an insistence that the "work of art" is an individual painting or sculpture. This insistence would have been incomprehensible 50 years ago; it would have been taken for granted; but in this age of installation and performance it's constantly called into question. A loophole in installation art clarifies this point. Installations tend to disarm criticism of the objects that comprise them by referring to the larger significance of the installation as a whole with its shibboleths of the "issues of" that it "deals with" or "critiques." As a result, when the objects that comprise them are sold they tend to become relics of the whole, like fragments of the true cross or the knucklebones of saints. In contrast, modernist painting and sculpture stands or falls on the quality of the work itself, the work as a whole; rather than disarming criticism, it invites it. If the members of ECAS have anything in common, it's a willingness to submit their work, as things in themselves, to the judgment of taste.

Terry Fenton, June, 2002