AGGV: What’s William Kurelek Telling You?

The AGGV just recently opened the largest ever exhibition of William Kurelek’s work and is it ever impressive!  The show was the brainchild of AGGV’s outgoing chief curator Mary-Jo Hughes and began seven years ago when she was a curator in Winnipeg.  Taking up four main gallery spaces, William Kurelek: The Messenger displays fine examples of his varied styles and influences.

In Mary-Jo Hughes’ last week on the job, while packing boxes and loading her car with hundreds of art books, she took an hour to take some of the docents (and me) on a tour of this amazing exhibition.  I could go on recounting what she explained about style, influences, history, and magnitude of Kurelek’s work, but I’m not a chief curator and I’m not sure I understood it all anyways.  What I hope this post accomplishes is a good description of who Kurelek was and the size and importance of this show.

Former Curator Mary-Jo Hughes points out details in one of Kurelek’s northern paintings.

William Kurelek (1927-1977) was a tortured man.  Suffering from mental illness (he suffered greatly from depression and anxiety), his early work looks almost entirely within – sometimes literally as demonstrated in The Maze, a series of self-portrait paintings which feature the inside of his head – and don’t have a message for the viewer other than his life story and his feelings.  Many paintings from that era were painted in England where he studied and sought treatment for his illnesses.  Some of these works only survived because he gave them to his therapists as thank you gifts!

Kurelek’s style changed when he had a religious conversion while in England.  Suddenly the demons from his previous paintings have moved to the background and he has become a vessel for God’s word – literally setting out to paint the Bible at one point.

Kurelek’s simple monogram reflects his thoughts that God was working through him, that God was the true artist who was simply using the painter (Kurelek) to pass on his message. You can also see the corner of Kurelek’s own home-made frames, a prominent aspect of his work in Toronto was framing.

His paintings become more ordered, less scary, and he seems more at peace than before.  It was this conversion which changed Kurelek from acting the part of the starving artist to simply the painter; God making art through him.

Moving back to Canada, Kurelek became focused on society’s faults and imminent destruction by nuclear war.  He had developed his style in the height of the Cold War and believed people were not paying attention to the threats in the world.  This was not what an escapist population wanted to hear in the late 1950’s and his sales dropped.  Embracing subtlety, Kurelek’s paintings – some of which from this period are his most famous – push nuclear destruction to a barely visible mushroom cloud in the distance while a farmer walks through his fields, for example.

The farmer from the Ukrainian Pioneer series (painting #6). This painting, featuring a small mushroom cloud rising over the fields (out of frame) is one of Kurelek’s most recognizable.

These pastoral scenes, taking up an entire gallery, are what Kurelek is perhaps most famous for, and his series on immigrant, Inuit, and Western Canadian lifestyles have appeared in galleries around the world.  Six massiv pieces from the Ukrainian Pioneer series were borrowed, after a lot of negotiating, from Rideau Hall.  Another piece is on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The story goes that when MoMA director Alfred H. Barr visited the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1961 at the invitation of the AGO’s Women’s Committee he was offered one piece out of the entire AGO collection to be purchased by Committee to take back to New York.  Out of all the rare, influential, and expensive pieces to choose from he chose the small Kurelek work Hailstorm in Alberta saying it was the most beautiful piece he had ever seen.  Canada is lucky to have it back!

Because the show is not put on chronologically but rather more thematically, you can enter at The Maze or at Big Lonely, one of the Western landscapes spanning over six feet of canvas.

One of the amazing details in the Ukrainian Pioneer series.

If you enter at Big Lonely you will immediately see the fascinating education station where you can experiment with photography techniques like those used by Kurelek to make his signature pieces.  No matter where you start the exhibition be prepared for awesome size and miniscule detail, beautiful landscapes and grotesque introspections.

With over 80 pieces spanning all of the artist’s career right up to his 1977 death – from depression to religion, West Coast to Northern Canada, Prairie immigrant farmers facing nuclear devastation, and serialized biblical scenes – William Kurelek: The Messengeris one of the most important exhibitions in Canada this summer.  The uncrating

Uncrating the Kurelek exhibition. Like Christmas for the Gallery staff!

– which took more than a week – was amazing to see and had Gallery staff pressing their noses to the exhibition doors like kids at Christmas.  Only Gallery preparators were allowed in the spaces as the immense crates could severely injure someone if they were knocked over.

A field of Kurelek crates straight from the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Preparing the gallery space before the paintings arrived took more than three weeks!

It goes to show that a struggling artist painting to chase the demons from his own head, whose work was ignored at times during and after his life because of its message, can regain a foothold in a nation’s art consciousness thanks to some forward thinking curators.

William Kurelek: The Messenger runs at the AGGV until September 3, 2012 with plenty of special events throughout the summer.  If you’d like to see examples of his work, head to the exhibition’s special interactive website.

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One response to “AGGV: What’s William Kurelek Telling You?

  1. Pingback: Going Postal: The Secret Envelope « @befaster·

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