Last week Canadians celebrated Canada Day and people flooded into the sea of red and white to bask in the country’s glory. But what do Canadians take pride in exactly? We usually rank in the top five of “best places to live,” we invented basketball and lacrosse, Tim Hortons kicks Dunkin’ Donuts’ butt any day of the week and we claim Wayne Gretzky and hockey as our own (minus the Vancouver fiasco last month).
I’ll give you another: William Perehudoff. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it ought to; at 93 years old, he is one of Canada’s most prolific and influential painters.
When it comes to visual artists, most Canadians have heard of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and even contemporary American artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, but many would be hard-pressed to identify the Canadian counterparts to these household names.
Is the Canadian public simply indifferent to art or is it more symptomatic? The Glenbow Museum’s art curator, Colleen Sharpe, thinks it’s the latter.
“Our institutions and curators have failed the Canadian public,” she laments.
Sharpe is hopeful, however, that the Glenbow’s summer exhibition, The Optimism of Colour — a major retrospective of the Saskatchewan-based artist — will help turn that around by shedding some light on one of our nation’s most under-celebrated gems.
Originating at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, The Optimism of Colour has travelled to Kamloops Art Gallery and has now made its way to Calgary, featuring over 60 works from Perehudoff’s impressive six-decade career.
Characterized by bold and expansive areas of colour, superimposed on a stained, watercolour-like background, Perehudoff’s paintings are eye candy. Simple geometry is prevalent in his works, but his compositions are anything but.
Reportedly, he preferred paintings imbued with “a kind of pulse,” meaning that the visual elements interact with one another in stimulating ways. His paintings certainly achieve that through unexpected combinations of hue, tonality and intensity. Spontaneous and constrained all at once, his works are akin to the uninhibited art of children in that they are intuitive, but upon closer inspection it is clear he had unequivocal mastery over his medium. His strokes suggest a rarely exhibited control and conviction.
The sheer scale of his works alone is mesmerizing. Sharpe says that even though the Glenbow is expansive, it’s still not an ideal venue, but recommends venturing up close (right before the security guard scolds you) and imagining what it must have been like to paint them.
“I tell people who are intimidated by modern art, ‘This is your man!’” Sharpe says. “He just really loved colour.”
So how does an untrained painter who spent most of his adult life in a rural environment, worlds away from creative centres, become championed, not just in the Prairie region, but across Canada and internationally?
Well, like any remarkable story, you must start from the beginning. That is why the Glenbow prefaces Perehudoff’s works with a series of paintings belonging to the Regina Five, the group credited as the first wave of abstract artists in Western Canada. These five forward-thinking artists created bold, non-figurative paintings, paving the way for what was to follow.
While the vast majority of the paintings exhibited are reflective of the work Perehudoff is best known for, a few of his lesser known, figurative works, including one of his celebrated murals, are on display to highlight the progression.
Perehudoff started as a landscape artist and gradually became more abstract until he let go of using external references altogether. Still, many point to an undeniable relationship between his love for neat geometry and clear delineations to his affiliation with the prairie’s panoramic skies, punctuated road grids, and expansive wheat fields.
That Perehudoff’s sense of self was deeply rooted in place is evident in his choice to remain in the Prairies and continue farming for all his life, despite many artists’ natural tendency to seek more creative, urban environments.
But his decision to stay paid off. Thanks to the Emma Lake Artists workshops initiated by Regina Five member Kenneth Lochhead, Saskatchewan was put on the creative map, and the workshops attracted big-name artists and critics alike, who would come to highly regard Perehudoff’s mastery of colour. It was an exciting time in Canada, and Perehudoff was at the centre of it all.
Despite the praise he received within these circles, Perehudoff remained humble and relatively unaffected by the theoretical, and at times, elitist impositions that accompany high art.
“In his travels to New York, it is likely that the artists there learned more from him than the other way around,” says Sharpe.“I think part of it was because he was isolated, he wasn’t tainted. His mastery of colour was intuitive, he did not over think it.”
So next time you’re sipping on that Timmy’s ice cappuccino, you might want to visit the Glenbow and give yourself another reason to boast about being Canadian.