London, Ontario is the first place that I remember and I lived there for 7 years during the first 9 years of my life. London is on the River Thames in Middlesex County in Ontario; it is a very Anglo area of Canada. It is a small university city and this was part of an environment that allowed for people to develop in freedom. At the time my father was lecturing in Zoology at Western University and London it was going through its own artistic renaissance. And this is the point of this blog entry how a small city became significant in the history of Canadian art.
Recently I returned to London for the first time since I left. I was fortunate to see “A Circle of Friends – the Doreen Curry Collection” at the Western University’s McIntosh Gallery. This modest collection by a librarian from the local public library shows that you don’t have to be a millionaire to put together a significant art collection. For Doreen Curry only collected work from local artists who she knew and these artists turned out to be significant to Canadian art of the 1960s – 80s in a movement called London Regionalism. The focus of Regionalism wasn’t a particular style but the local site and building a community mindset that embraced complete artistic freedom.
When I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa I was surprised to find that the Regionalists of London Ontario are so important to Canadian art history. The first room of the Canadian art section, “Modern 1960 – 1975” is full of their work. Then at an exhibition on abstraction at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal I saw more paintings by Paterson Ewen.
The local artists that Doreen Curry collected included the twin artists, David and Royden Rabinovitch. David Rabinovitch was studying at the University of Western Ontario when he did his first floor sculpture. Greg Curnoe, painter and drummer, kazoo-ist and co-founded of the Canadian noise band the Nihilist Spasm Band. Curnoe also published a Region magazine and established an artist run centre in 1973. And Murray Favro, an artist and the guitarist in the Nihilist Spasm Band. Along with Ron Benner, David Boldoc, Richard Bonderenko, kerry ferris, Dave Gordon, Jamelie Hassan. Doreen Inglis, Ron Martin and Paddy Gunn O’Brien.
There wasn’t an overall style to the art of the London Regionalists just a location and enjoyment of artistic freedom in materials and expression. The location with both the Western University and the public library was important to that local regional cultural renaissance.
I would like to say that some of this radical art attitude rubbed off on my young self that the Regionalists had indeed succeeded in building a mindset that embraced artistic freedom in me. I remember the public library’s collection other media and I listened to a lot of the spoken word from its the record collection. The library’s director Dr Crouch was very progressive and believed that information could be contained in media other than books.
I also remember visiting Western University on an open day and going into the art workshop and an artist saying: “We don’t use art materials any more, we use anything” and pointing to an assemblage of monkey wrenches on the wall. Maybe it was David Rabinovitch or one of the other Regionalists.
I have some vague memories of visiting the public art gallery with my mother and siblings as it was in the same building as the public library. And I definitely remember enjoying an exhibition of edible art by some university students, as you could eat the art after the viewing time. It was an interactive exhibition, in the elevator on the way to the exhibition one of the students announced that he had brought his own spoon. It wasn’t the most serious of exhibitions, these weren’t exclusively art students, and some of the works were just a bunch of students having a laugh, like the rice crispy coffin or the mock up of the cake from the cover of the Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed” (released Dec 1969). Other pieces had a message; the aquarium full of what appeared to be polluted water with weeds and a coke can was in fact a jelly.
Anyway I was digressing into reminiscences when I should be looking at what made London so fruitful artistically. And even this question is around the wrong way, although the public library, the university and the city were part of the structure that allowed the London Regionalists it was the artists who made it, who were determined and conscious about their goal to make it artistically free and fruitful.