Kurelek: The Messenger at AGH

Now – through April 29th – The Art Gallery of Hamilton – $ 10 (AGH Admission)

In this special art review, Happening Hamilton contributor Guylaine Spencer, writes about William Kurelek’s “The Messenger” exhibit at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The largest-ever retrospective of William Kurelek’s paintings rolled into Hamilton in January, and more than 2,000 visitors squeezed into the Art Gallery of Hamilton on opening day to see the show. The 85 paintings, some of which stretch over two metres wide, are so detailed that you might need a couple of visits to begin processing them.

(Read more after the break….)


William Kurelek – Reminiscences of Youth 1968. Mixed media on hardboard
125.1 x 149.5 cm – The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

 Kurelek (1927-1977) was one of Canada’s most popular 20th century artists. Famous for his paintings and illustrated books, he created more than 2,000 works.  Son of a Ukrainian-Canadian immigrant father, Kurelek is best known for his Prairie Boy series and other paintings depicting the lives of immigrant farmers and their children; this exhibit shows some of those works such as “Reminiscences of Youth”. Also present are less familiar pieces including some disturbing surrealistic works he painted while undergoing treatment in a mental care institution (see: “The Maze”) and several works criticizing contemporary society.

The exhibit is co-curated by the AGH, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Kurelek’s family played a large role in making this show happen. They have been extraordinary, says Tobi Bruce, Senior Curator, Canadian Historical Art at the AGH. “They have been so supportive. They’ve trusted us. They have not tried to shape anything. The exhibition is really more poignant here because they all live in the area.” Kurelek’s parents ran a farm in Vinemount, near Stoney Creek, and although the artist never lived there, it was a kind of home base for him. The farm, in fact, figures in two paintings in this show, and a third work refers explicitly to Hamilton.

“This is Nemesis” shows downtown Hamilton after a nuclear bomb has been dropped on it. Twisted, burnt bodies writhe in agony and buildings have been blown apart. Bruce calls the painting a “warning”. Kurelek was a Catholic in the Cold War era who believed that nuclear war was imminent and that it would wipe out most of the planet, sparing only a few believers. Nemesis means divine retribution and Kurelek felt obligated to warn people to repent while there was still time.

William Kurelek – This is the Nemesis – 1965. Mixed media on masonite.

114.8 x 115.6cm – Art Gallery of Hamilton, Gift of Mrs. J.A. McCuaig, 1966

“In the Autumn of Life” at first appears much sunnier. Kurelek’s extended family gathers on the Vinemount  farm for a photograph. However, off on the horizon a mushroom cloud hovers. “It is the culminating painting of his series “An Immigrant Farms in Canada”, which is the story of his father’s life,” says Bruce. “When he paints this in 1964, the children are largely grown. The land around the farm was their property. And his father’s in the autumn of his life. It shows his material success but with that comes the loss of others things, and the danger of turning a blind eye to religion.”

“Despondency” is also set on his parents’ farm, and shows his father despairing after a spring flood. A Toronto-Hamilton & Buffalo train snakes by in the distance, grounding the work in a specific time and place. It’s a memory of a real event. However, on another level, the flood may also symbolize the Biblical flood – in Kurelek’s eyes, another act of Nemesis.

 These darker paintings contrast with dozens of other works in the show celebrating the everyday joys of childhood, family and community. But light or dark, all of Kurelek’s art tends to have this quality:  it makes you ponder what, if anything, lies beyond the familiar reality he painstakingly presents.

For the catalogue, talks and film accompanying this exhibit, see http://www.artgalleryofhamilton.com

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