informal searching(s) and findings
I caught the William Kurelek retrospective before it ends its’ stay at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Curators Mary Jo Hughes, Tobi Bruce, and Andrew Kear do a terrific job of providing some insight into Kurelek’s world stressed in the subtitle: The Messenger. This intrigues me, because it implies some mysticism, or message. So, as I wandered through the exhibit, I keep this in mind.
85 paintings exhibit some of the common themes and elements particular to Kurelek. The subject matter of this exhibit include the artist’s identity, religious scripture, the foresight of the downfall of city (industrial) endeavors, belonging, and the fine art framing workshop. The period of moral exacting on Kurelek’s part is soon after his conversion to religious life. The city of Hamilton appears in one of the more amazing explosive steaming paintings in detail. To look at them today they are as contemporary as ‘occupier’s’ concerns.
As a fine art framer, Kurelek fashioned his own in clever and decorative ways that compliment the subjects of his painting. In one painting, Kurelek appears to have extended the outside frame at the bottom; a painting is literally framed within the painting. Ukrainian decorative textiled ribbons are attached to a few paintings of traditional Ukraine events, or carved and painted patterns on the wooden frames. He uses barn boards as well as elements in frames on rustic rural scenes. I notice he also paints the inside edge of some frames to compliment colors within the painting.
Kurelek was prolific. He started painting in the early 1950s, and travelled to Mexico, England, many European countries, Israel, Turkey, and Syria, and continued to travel in the late 1960s to South Africa, Kenya, Hong Kong, and India. From these I have had glimpses of scenes he paints from his travel experiences in India, Canada’s north, and more. There are also mural projects at the end of his life in 1977 that are missing from this show, but there is so much of his work.
Kurelek’s life story, however, isn’t so different than many boys, or girls for that matter, artists of immigrant parents in Canada. He is the boy that is good at drawing and, apparently for his farming immigrant father (and family?), little else, which is never true. What is wonderful and painful to see at the sametime is the detail with which Kurelek would draw and paint it all out, it is in the details. He attends to the duties and obligations of the farm, traditional family and community gatherings, and the expectations of the 1st generation son, i.e. to become a Doctor. He goes to school, works in resource industry, and returns to school to paint. Eventually, Kurelek leaves for England to get away from the pressures and antagonisms of his family and life on the farm, and commits himself to hospital. It is at the hospital that he finds guidance and encouragement to paint. Through the help of people and the Roman Catholic Church he undertakes religious instruction. From then on religious messages underly his work. Drawing and painting and framing is his working life, and perhaps he finally gains the meaning he needs through religious purpose. I see this in the smaller paintings of framing tools: blacking brush, and gloves.
As I read reviews of this exhibit I find similar stories of coming across Kurelek’s work. The first time I see his Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish immigrant prairie series is as a youth. I recognize the imagery and techniques, the way he draws, as illustrations, and in his career some of his paintings become series in illustrated children’s books. The paintings are large and the colors are bright washes. He works in oils, with ink, and gouache on masonite boards. Figures are rounded, cartoons almost, which suggest these images are from the imagination of the painter. I didn’t see any of the darkness until in the last decade or so when I come across his work again when researching Art Brut. He completes, The Maze, during his time under the care of Drs. in the psychiatric hospital in England. In it he reveals the inside of his skull, which he has sliced open to the interior vignettes depicting the pressures and painful experiences he has as a boy, youth, and adult; drawn with his recognizable volume filled characters and animals, perspective, colors, and details. The detail is dazzling. It tells his story to his Drs, and to us.
The Return of William Kurelek’s Apocalyptic Vision, by Robert Enright, The Globe and Mail, Toronto.
William Kurelek: The Messenger [The exhibit web site]
The Maze [The documentary movie trailer]
Wynick Tuck Gallery, Toronto, see more of Kurelek’s work here.
Also, the drawing/paintings of Kristin Bjornerud and sculptural installation by Kim Adams on view at the AGH continues the thread of Kurelek.. for me anyway. Details and washes of color, mysticism and storytelling. Links below.