Feature: Greg Curnoe

Greg Curnoe

NOSE B, collage, 1966
MOUSTACHE #10, collage, 1965
LIP & CHIN #3, collage, 1967
TIE #4, collage, 1967

Greg Curnoe has come to be known as a central figure in the history of modern Canadian art. His body of work, in all its variety, allows for recognition of the changing tides of Western art as it relates to both a personal and all-encompassing expression of mid to late 21st century Canadian experience.

Around 1965 Greg Curnoe would begin in building a distinctive collection of shaped collages. Although these works stay true to the style and spirit of Curnoe’s more widely known paintings, they offer an intriguing departure in technique. The individual papers and cut-outs that make up the works are in large part ephemera collected from Curnoe’s daily life, whether candy bar wrappers, theatre tickets or clippings from newspaper advertisements. The carved wooden frames on which the collages are mounted are presented as intentionally reductive, standardized forms. Taken as a whole, the works are meant not to present a cohesive, fully formed narrative, but a kind of fragmented representation of personal identity.

When Nose B, Moustache #10, Lip & Chin #3 and Tie #4 are combined, Curnoe titles the whole as a self portrait. He seems to suggest that when met with the conditions of commercialization, a life is marked by what one consumes, whether literally through the marketplace, or through the internalization of specific images or ideologies propagated by the mass media. For Curnoe, then, the General Electric labels and images of pin-up models are equally critical in the development of ‘self’ as mediated by the forces of our ever-growing capitalistic environment. The works can of course be seen in a different light - not as aggressive political statements, but rather as honest, even sentimental records of modern life.

Curnoe’s expansive body of work places him at a rare intersection between various art theories and practices. He combines at once the appropriation of commercial images taken up by the Pop artists, the chaotic nature of Dada collage, and even the systematic, unified compositions of the Post-Automatiste artists of Quebec. Curnoe was very much aware that his work transcended certain boundaries and definitions; in fact he would come to reject any overarching labels set to describe his art. We can, however, comment on his involvement with the arts scene of London, Ontario as a defining factor in the development of his style. In the sixties and seventies, London grew to be a vibrant arts centre where the likes of Curnoe, Jack Chambers, Ron Martin, Murray Favro and Tony Urqhart were all actively working. These artists would prove to be influential in the transition from modern to postmodern and contemporary sensibilities in Canadian art.

In 2011 Museum London presented “Cutout”, an exhibition that would bring together all of Curnoe’s shaped collages, four of which are housed in Gallery Stratford’s permanent collection. Above all, it is through these works that we can build a more complete understanding of Curnoe’s range and flexibility as an artist.