Friday, July 17, 2009

Conservative Crush: William Kurelek

Fridays, especially in the summer, are theoretically supposed to be for easy, fun tasks. So today I'm going to give a shout-out to a Canadian artist who I love in an easy, fun way—despite his conservative leanings. That would be good ol' William Kurelek, born in 1927, died 1977, but still loved by many today.

Part of the appeal for Kurelek for me is a mix of nostalgia and brainwashing—when I was a kid we had the book "A Prairie Boy's Winter," which reproduces a variety of Kurelek's paintings on farm life in 1930sish Manitoba, and I pored over that thing hundreds of times.

I also grew up on the prairies, albeit in the cities of Winnipeg and Calgary, so I knew some of those things Kurelek depicted—snowdrifts as tall as a twelve-year-old, skin stuck to metal in -30 weather, sundogs and the like.

So when I look at his paintings today in person—the Art Gallery of Ontario has a really nice room of them—I definitely get that lower-brain-stem pang. (I should head to the Niagara Falls Art Gallery sometime—for some reason they have his archive.)

Another thing I really like about Kurelek's work is his unpretentious portrayal of artistic activity. His work "The Painter" (no image, sorry), shows a massive slice of cloud-dotted prairie sky, a farmer's dirt-strewn field, and then, in the lowest part of the painting, a guy sitting in a modest red car, painting on a small board in the back seat. Sweet!

Also nice is his wide-scope view. In a painting of Toronto's Don Valley as seen from an overpass—it seems like a simple look at highways and apartment buildings, but the verdant strips of green that pop up here and there provide realistic relief. (His 1974 painting of strollers on Toronto's Beaches Boardwalk might also be of interest to urban history enthusiasts.) In some ways, these many-figure paintings are reminiscent of Breughel, one of Kurelek's acknowledged influences.

Some of his works also have a Canadian Norman Rockwell feel, but to me it's never overly saccharine, just a slice of life. One image shows a quarter-side view of someone on an outhouse seat, looking through an aged Eaton catalogue whose pages have been ripped out for use as toilet paper. It's just a picture of country life at a time—or hey, maybe an anticonsumerist screed, take your pick!

What makes Kurelek conservative is partly his painting style and partly his religious views, which were quite Catholic. He has some paintings of the crucifixion and fire-and-brimstone moments which are pretty old-school ideologically. Still, I'm charmed by the fact that he updated the audience at the crucifixion in one painting with prairie-pothole folk in toques and parkas. What can I say? You can take the girl out of Winnipeg, but you can't take the Winnipeg out of the girl.

All works by William Kurelek: Crows leaving for the South, 1974 From Joyner Waddington's; Balsam Avenue After Heavy Snowfall 1972 from; painting of skaters from Great Crested Flycatcher; Children playing in a snowbank, 1971 from Joyner Waddington's; I Triumphed and I Saddened With All Weather, 1970. From Telling Stories


L.M. said...

Anthony Easton wrote a great essay on Kurelek a few years ago. (The Tom Thomson Gallery has a few of his good dark ones.) Kurelek missed the point with Breughel, he never learned to mix the dark and the light in the same painting.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey LM,

Thanks for your link... I look forward to reading Easton's essay.

Yes, I agree with you that the Breugel thing seems to be confined maybe to compositions than to content.

That's probably while I feel unrestrained nostalgia about it rather than some soupcon of dread! : - )

Leah Sandals said...

Just finished reading the Easton essay you linked to LM -- wow, a lot to learn from in there! I knew about that darker
"Maze" work (again, the prairie grassland he chose to submerge it in just gets me) but not about the other ones.
Thanks for that. I hope to see them in person sometime!

Anthony said...

There is a room of them in the AGO, including the ocean of blood one, and if you get to the City Musuem, there is the David Crosbie portrait.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Anthony... Thanks for the tip! And for writing that great essay. I think I did see that bloody brimstone one at the AGO the other day, but I'll take your tip on City Museum.

Hrag said...

I like Kurelek too but his crazy anti-abortion painting with dead babies outside a hospital is just disturbing.

Leah Sandals said...

Uh... yeah. That's the conservative part. Big time. That story in Anthony's essay about Kurelek painting a politician putting feotuses through a wood chipper = also disturbing.

However, I grew up part devout Catholic, so maybe I'm just inured to loving folks who I strongly differ with on the abortion issue. Sad but true.

andrew k said...

Thank-you for the link to Easton's piece. I am currently involved in curating a major Kurelek exhibition for 2010 and 2011 with the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Easton provides some wonderful food for thought.

One error: while he did write about Kurelek, Ramsay Cook, it should be noted, is neither an artist nor a poet. He's a Canadian historian (The Regenerators: Social Criticism in late Victorian Canada I hightly recommend). I think Easton means Brian Dedora, who was a framer with Kurelek at Isaacs and wrote a memoir about his time at the gallery, working with Kurelek.

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks for the clarification, Anthony. I look forward to seeing the show!

Carolyn said...

Just came across this blog while looking for images of Kurelek paintings to use for a class I'll be teaching on Kurelek. I'm a bit late on joining the discussion, however, I found it interesting that you identify him as "conservative." If you really want to know about Kurelek as an artist, and be able to understand his work, you should read his autobiography, Someone With Me. I've never thought of him as conservative, but he certainly was a devout Catholic. After his conversion he saw it as his mission to serve God, and use his talent and his art to evangelize--to show the truth, and bring people to it, through art. You can't separate his Catholic faith and evangelical zeal from his work. His anti-abortion paintings are social commentaries, and are supposed to be disturbing. Murdering babies is rather disturbing. Pro-choicers usually prefer out of sight, out of mind though. By the way, his conversion story--the healing he found in the Catholic faith--is quite beautiful. "Conservative" is a political term. Kurelek was not political, he was a Christian artist.

Mark Venema said...

Are any of those paintings of the abortions online... Can't find them.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Mark,

I'm on the go right now and can't recall where I found an image of those paintings at the moment.

I remember basically combing a lot of Kurelek pages for info and just coming across one of them there--a surprise for me as I had no idea they existed.

If I'm able to dig up a source tonight, I'll let you know.

Otherwise, good luck with your search!

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Mark,

I think that image may have disappeared from the interwebs but there are two directions you may want to research on this topic:

1) the Niagara Falls Art Gallery has a big William Kurelek archive. Maybe if you gave them a call they could let you know whether they have any such images in their collection (their website only features his Passion of the Christ series)

2) I see on Amazon that Kurelek actually did illustrations for a 1974 book called "Abortion in Perspective". A bit of a frightening title. As I tried to make clear, I'm personally pro-choice but grew up with staunchly pro-life relatives, so maybe Kurelek's imagery around this doesn't shock me as much as it might shock others.
Note another co-author for this title- Marshall McLuhan.. whatttt????

Leah Sandals said...

Sorry, just because I totally can't believe this I have to post - apparently Marshall McLuhan was staunchly Catholic and pro-life! Whattttt?