Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society 10th Anniversary Exhibition at the Edmonton Art Gallery: A Critic’s View

Dr. Kenworth Moffett. June 2002

I am honoured that the Society has chosen me to curate their 10th anniversary exhibition. I must admit that I was surprised to be asked, since I was somewhat critical when I last wrote about the art scene in Edmonton. But the choice was very much in keeping with what I want to call “The Emma Lake Tradition”, after the workshop held in Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, beginning in 1954. This tradition was carried forward by the Edmonton Art Gallery under the leadership of Terry Fenton and by the University of Alberta in Edmonton thanks to Doug Haynes and others. The Emma Lake Tradition is a frank recognition of the isolation of western Canada, and a willingness to invite outsiders, especially British and American, to stimulate and inspire. In essence, it is an openness, a seriousness of purpose, a willingness to do whatever necessary to make the best art. Very much part of this tradition, the Society includes members not only from Saskatoon and Toronto, but also from the U.S. and U.K.

Modern artists have always proclaimed the universality of art and the irrelevance of geography. In cultural matters though, Canadians, like everyone else, can be fiercely nationalistic and over sensitive about American influence. The great Toronto painter, Jack Bush, faced this throughout his entire mature career. Like him, the Emma Lake Tradition refuses to be defensive or intimidated. As a result, Edmonton today has an extraordinarily vibrant modernist movement, which has no equal in any other city in North America, leaving aside New York. I had not been to Edmonton in some time and I was enormously impressed with the extraordinary high level of achievement and the continuing strength of commitment.

Another thing that struck me was how many friends I have in Edmonton and how comfortable Edmontonians are to be around. The American critic, Clement Greenberg, used to call this “Canadian diffidence”. I would rather say “laid-back”. It is a wonderful human quality. But can this same quality be inhabiting when it comes to self-expression, especially painting today? More about this later.

In what follows I will discuss the work by members of the Society who I visited. I will also have occasion to mention other Edmonton artists who are not currently in the Society because, only by doing so, can I present my view of the overview, which, I believe, is the best thing I can do. I will not discuss the work of everyone though, but only those who made a strong impression. Also, I will not discuss those who were represented only by slides since slides so often lie.

Two Society members, Graham Peacock and Joseph Drapell, are also members of the New New painters, another international group which has attracted attention, especially in Europe, for over a decade now. Both show the freshness, boldness, and freedom characteristic of New New work. These two are, in my view, Canada’s leading painters. Peacock’s art becomes ever more free, complex, and expansive. He has developed a highly involved painting procedure so as to generate new expressive textures, colours, and forms. No one identifies more completely with the new acrylic medium. I think of him as a mad alchemist turning plastic into gold. Drapell too has invented a unique way of working, his own invented “craft”, which permits continual experimentation, a constant pushing beyond his own boundaries, always striving to become larger and larger, freer and freer. His work often shows that gorgeous extravagance we know from great Old Masters like Giorgione and Titian.

The picture I chose by Dan Christensen is a brilliant fusion of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field, which is as good a definition of New New as any: anger plus love.

Clay Ellis who is a very good and even original sculptor, has lately turned to painting. The works I saw in his studio this time embrace the plastic look of acrylics and are freer than anything I have ever seen by him. It is remarkable to me how utterly achieved these first paintings by him are. Now he needs more colour but he is already in a groove and could hold his own in any New New show.

Ann Walsh is also on to something new and New New. She reminds us that New New, with its sharp contrasts and vivid colours, have made the art of Kenneth Noland newly relevant again. Walsh’s idea is very original, aggressively physical and aggressively optical, a very New New kind of affirmation. These works are only a beginning. Walsh now has lots of room to expand and become bolder and more forceful.

In the past, Giuseppe Albi has painted very good, modestly sized Olitski influenced pictures, refined and beautiful. But he has thrown this style over and started from scratch in order to find something more discovered and his own. This involves surrendering control, opening up, letting go, exposing himself to ridicule. Anne Walsh has just gone through such a period. Here is the spirit of New New: let it all out, be free and fearless.

The painted, female nudes of Violette Owen impressed me enormously. They were one of the high points of my Edmonton visit. The one I chose has such a commanding force of presence, that it trumps the aggressive presentation of the model’s sex, making it serve a rivetting humanity; a more blunt and open Olympia.

What I think of as the Olitski wing of the Society’s painters include Robert Scott, Walter Darby Bannard, James Walsh, Mitch Smith, John Griefen and Harold Feist. It is testimony to the largeness of Olitski’s post 1965 style that so many good painters are so successful with it. On the other hand, none of these painters have come close to matching Olitski’s achievement. At the moment, Bob Scott is the strongest of this group. His dark vision and seething passion keeps his works dramatically alive. He has also done some fascinating new sculpture.

Walter Darby Bannard has always been a good, sometimes excellent, painter, but rarely a great one. He did some truly great pictures in the 80’s and recently he has gone back to his style of that time which, in itself, shows a heightened self awareness. I have only seen photo images of these new ones, but I am ready to believe that Bannard, one of the most intelligent of painters, is finally ready to give his all and believe completely in himself.

James Walsh’s newest paintings done in pastels, lack the impact which I have come to expect from him. I wound up choosing a slightly older one. At his best, Walsh moulds paint like a sculptor, creating a hefty monumental power, despite the relatively small size of the pictures. They are impressive. Still, I would love to see him tackle large size and go beyond close valued colour. With Pollock-type painting, largeness (full human body size and beyond) counts and the more range the better.

I was disappointed in Mitch Smith’s studio. The last time I visited I liked his pictures very much. The one I did pick may be a lot better than I think. It was the choice I was most in doubt about. In any event, as with Bannard and Walsh, so with Smith, I feel that the best is yet to come.

Doug Haynes had some wonderful, small, black and white collages which made me think of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. They are the freest work I have ever seen by him. Now he needs to do this full size. Marianne Watchel whose gift, like Haynes’, is for drawing, has been able to master large scale but, so far, only in one or two pieces; like Haynes she is almost in a groove, and ready for another level.

John Griefen and Terry Keller both have been painting pretty much the same picture for many years and they do so surprisingly well. Keller’s has become richer and more suggestive. Harold Feist’s recent works, which I saw in Toronto, show how sensitive and sophisticated he can be.

Canada has a tradition of good landscape painting and the Society certainly has its share. The best example I saw was by Gerry Faulder. It had a rich, warm, enclosing feeling. Also, I found a Hendrik Bres which was exciting and unpredictable. There were fine examples by Hilary Prince, who has made a difficult transition from dark, brooding landscapes to bright, luminous ones and seems to be hitting her stride again.

Sculpture in Edmonton is as vigorous as painting, although, as is almost always the case, there are far fewer sculptors than painters. Sculpture is more demanding both physically and financially; it requires a lot more energy. No one has exhibited more energy than Anthony Caro, the leading sculptor of the late 20th century. He has spent a considerable amount of time in Western Canada and has been a big influence. Caro is a member of the Society and is represented in this show. He is hugely productive, a veritable whirlwind of creativity, constantly throwing off one brilliant sculptural idea after another. He knows how to develop them too. He also does lots of mediocre pieces but these seem to be necessary, as if he is a force of nature unable to stop, wait or edit.

Also from U.K. is Peter Hide, who was a student of Caro’s and who came to Edmonton in 1977 to teach at the University. He too is one of the world’s best abstract sculptors and may have had an even bigger influence. If Caro is the larger figure, Hide is the more intense and consistent. He puts more of himself into each piece or so it seems. He disregards the constructivist/pictorial side of Caro and takes his inspiration primarily from traditional figure sculpture. He is a “sculptor’s sculptor”, stressing naked material, mass, volume, density, compactness, and, above all, monumental vigor. A carver in steel, he is always tightening his profiles, focussing his force. The effect of looming power, which I had in his workspace, was truly awesome.

Ken Maklin, a student of Hide’s, is also a very large figure who had lots to show. The one I liked best was a group of large, heavy rings rolling, helter-skelter outward from the wall toward the viewer. I loved its headlong frontal onslaught, very New New. Royden Mills, whose work I saw for the first time, also shows plenty of energy and ambition. Three woman sculptors: Vesna Makale, Bianca Khan and Katherine Sicotte, all showed strong works.

Artists have always formed groups brought together by their vision. This has been especially true in modern times when the greatest artists usually find themselves isolated outside the official art world. In this context a group provides confirmation, inspiration, competition (keeping sharp), the sharing of technical information, and exhibition opportunities. The Edmonton Contemporary Artist Society and the New New painters are the two such groups today. Both come out of the same tradition: Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting. Both are off the radar screen of the New York art world where reputations are made and secondary markets established. The best artists in these two groups are all mid-career or older and have little hope of great worldly success in their life time. More like a religion than a business, their art is purely the product of inner necessity. They can’t help themselves. For them, it is a matter of personal survival. Rejection and neglect has only made them stronger. Their number are growing now more than ever. They have learned to shape their disappointment, resentment and anger. No less than libido, rage is a source of raw energy to be sublimated into art. Also, alienation frees the serious artist from distractions, letting him or her give their all to their inner necessity. Fear of distraction is what made so many of Pollock’s generation afraid of worldly success.

Edmonton then, is in a near ideal situation, at least as long as it sticks to the Emma Lake Tradition. At the moment, this means fully digesting the New New painters who have been the most audacious in seizing the possibilities offered by the new acrylic paints and gels. Starting with Lucy Baker in the mid 80’s, they have led in a wave of aggressive, free form, expressionism. By now even Olitski and Poons are doing their freest, most lyrical work ever. To be unaware of this development is to play without a full deck.

A word of caution, the New New must be seen in the flesh. Never before has new art been less reproducible. Today the worldwide web helps artists keep in touch with their peers. But keeping in touch with others and exchanging images, is very different than being with paintings and sculptures. The latter is an I-thou relationship and requires travel, studio visits, and bringing art and artists in from outside. The web can all too easily create an illusion of being up to date and in the know.

A final point, New New goes the furthest in making very American, brash, aggressive statements, what Karen Wilkin calls, “full throttle painting”. In this context, Canadian “diffidence” or good mannered restraint, might seem like a liability. But deep down Canadians have as much anger as the rest of us, they just control it better. But they too want release and transcendence. They too love freedom and greatness.