Hybrid Study, 197677, pencil
C. was a humanist and pluralist, which is not to say that she didn’t have powerful likings and dislikings in art.
Our regional Art College in the Seventies, so far as I could tell, was committed to a quasi-Darwinian or quasi-Hegelian-Marxist view of art, with each significant movement and innovation leading inexorably to the next, and weaker ones falling by the wayside.
Impressionism begat Post-Impressionism begat Cubism begat Dada begat (alas) Surrealism begat Abstract Expressionism begat Pop begat Minimalism begat Conceputalism/Happenings/etc/begat Post-Modernism/etc/etc. That sort of thing.
Conceptualism was out in front—the cutting-edge, the vanguard. At one point, as I recall, it was announced inside the College that drawing was dead, and for some years figure drawing was apparently not taught.
C. thought that all this was extraordinarily unfair to the kinds of innocent Nova Scotian students who came to the College lacking basic skills and vastly ignorant of the richness and variousness of art over the centuries.
In 1978, C., who was basically an expressionist, curated a superb exhibition of Expressionist prints from the National Gallery collection in the Mount Saint Vincent art gallery, partly in a missionary spirit. It was critically hammered by a reviewer from the College.
Obviously a stake had to be driven through Expressionism’s dark heart to save the College students from seduction.
What was at issue during those years, as in any ideological conflict, was the question of validation, authentication, authority.
On the Dalhousie University Art Gallery committee, C. fought the pressure to make the Dalhousie art gallery essentially an adjunct of the College and the College’s view of art.
She insisted that it was the Dalhousie art gallery, and should be responsive to the needs of the Dalhousie community, including its students. She felt that it should have its place in the provision of a liberal education, and not simply be a place for indoctrination in the attitudes of current modernism. She wanted it to be related to a Dalhousie programme of art history, alas never realized.
She also thought that the gallery’s ignoring of local artists unrelated to the College was inexcusable.
I remember her being particularly angry when the gallery committee, with limited acquisitions funds at its disposal, paid what I imagine was a substantial sum for a Michael Snow walking-woman drawing on crumpled paper, and refused even to visit a show by Bruno Bobak at the Saint Mary’s gallery, in which some of Bruno’s richest drawings were available at modest prices.
Snow’s image, I mean the drawing, was nothing in itself but was charged with art-talk contextuality. Bruno’s art, in contrast, was obviously perceived as weightless.
She lost some of her committee battles in a peculiarly humiliating way, being treated as someone who simply didn’t know what serious art in those days was like.
Moreover, the art scene in Nova Scotia and Canada being what it was, there was no court of appeal.
The Art College was generously funded by the Province, and could point—if challenged—to the prestigious figures whom it imported for brief periods, and to its network of connections with like-minded institutions elsewhere.
C. had no connections, and other “outsider” artists in Nova Scotia were reluctant to challenge the College, because of the increasingly heavy dependence of artists on Canada Council and Art Bank money, in the awarding of which College recommendations counted for a lot.
Historically she was in the right, if one can judge by the way in which in the Eighties representation, narrative, expressionism, drawing, succulent colour, and other banished things came flooding back into art.
But that didn’t do her any good at the time.
Her chronic anger and feeling of powerlessness in those days contributed, I am sure, to the development of her asthma.
But there were occasional compensations.
Among her students, when she taught drawing in the School of Architecture in the Sixties, was George Saia, a very bright and polylinguistic, but somewhat unfocussed cultural d.p. (displaced person).
George was great fun to be with, and the only person in Halifax on something like my wave-length when it came to movies. I still remember his recommending The Mini-Skirt Mob to me, a biker movie, beyond the pale for serious movie-goers.
I also remember the three of us turning up late and drunk and giggly at a solemn Happening put on in a Dalhousie lecture room by Les Levine.
George transformed himself later into Jorge Zontal, one of the three members of the ultra-sophisticated and conceptualist Toronto art team General Idea.
I was definitely not on that wave-length. It was Camp, obviously, but certainly not the John Waters kind, and perhaps not even the Warhol kind, though I suppose deriving from Warhol, and I still cannot pick up one of the copies of their magazine FILE that he gave us with any sense of what’s going on.
Saying “neo-Dada” doesn’t seem to help.
But George was very friendly to us when he was brought in for a day or two as an honoured guest at the College of Art during the blackest days of C.’s ostracism, and I know that C. enjoyed the thought that Jorge/George, himself far more sophisticated than anyone at the College, and rather contemptuous of the College, spent a couple of evenings with us and didn’t appear to view her as merely a troublesome lady painter.
The Geology of Fear, 1974, ink