My Canada, 41/150: London art-punches above its weight

First off, not THAT London. The other London. London, the mid-point of southern Ontario, Canada.

I lived there for many years when working as a journalist for The London Free Press. Without those years, I might not have discovered the creative foment of the London Regionalism art movement, sometimes called The London Group.

Key to this group, which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, is the work of Greg Curnoe, painter, video-maker and founding member of the Nihilist Spasm Band, described by no less than Canada’s National Gallery as an “ardent regionalist.” Curnoe encouraged artists to explore subjects from their everyday lives and was a twinkling trickster in his art, incorporating personal references whenever he could. We discovered the Curnoe artwork in the main photo for this Teahen Tale a few years ago on display at the Windsor Art Gallery. Painted on the back of this stand-up wood panel is a list of supposed boxing bouts; amid the pugilists’ names I recognized several monikers of Curnoe’s artistic London pals.

Curnoe was an avid cyclist, often painted images of bicycles, and sadly died doing what he loved: he was hit by a truck and killed in 1992 when out for a ride with his cycling club.

An earlier standard bearer of London Regionalism was Jack Chambers, whose life was also cut short by cancer at age 47 in 1978. Like Curnoe, he was a multi-media explorer, but his lasting legacy is what he calls his Perceptual Realism style – large-scale paintings of scenes of domestic life, urban landscape, and countryside rooted in London, Ontario and environs.

I have been most drawn to the works of London Group member Paterson Ewen, who was still alive in the years I lived in London. He lived nearly a four score, dying at age 77 in 2002.

Sunset Over the Mediterranean by Paterson Ewen, 1980, 229×243.8
cm. Museum London Collection, gift of the Blackburn Group Inc., 1997.

Ewen’s works must be seen to be experienced: they are often massive in scale and have a rugged, physical, three-dimensional presence. He often started with plywood, routered contours into the surface, hacked and chiselled more layers, painted, and then sometimes overlaid the wood and paint with thin pieces of gleaming metal hammered onto the wood. Ewen’s work is both painting and sculpture, often depicting storms, comets, sunsets, and other natural phenomena.

The work above for many years hung in the lobby of the newspaper where I worked; when the London family owners sold the business, they donated the painting/sculpture to Museum London, the regional art gallery based in London.

In 2011, the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a retrospective honouring Ewen’s work. I did not live in Toronto then, and missed it. I’m hoping sometime soon another gallery commits to gathering and showing Ewen’s magnificent creations.

London Regionalism was once described as “a group of artists who decided to stay home.” For more than a decade, I shared their home, and am richer for the experience of seeing our common world through their eyes.

Main photo of Greg Curnoe installation (with interloper) at Windsor Art Gallery: Chris Moorehead.


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