Working with the Material at Hand: A Roundtable on Regionalism

Don Vincent, "1966 Young London Exhibition at 20/20 Gallery in London, Ontario."
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Since the London Regionalists’ first wave of activity in the early 1960s, it’s become clear that the movement wasn’t isolated to a single generation or a single moment. Indeed, its presence is less a wave than a recurring tide. This can be seen in several ways: its earliest proponents, Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe, have recently experienced a measure of posthumous recovery (they were the subjects of career-affirming solo exhibitions at the AGO and Museum London, respectively). Then there is the activity that surrounds an emerging generation of London artists like Jason McLean, James Kirkpatrick, Jamie Q, and Marc Bell, whose collaboration and text-based, often comic, work provides a form of “mapping” the regional and redefining its terms.

There are the things that bind these generations together, like the artist-run initiatives (Forest City Gallery), the small-scale presses (20 Cents Magazine), and the general ethos that London artists share: work with the materials at hand.

In consideration of these through-lines in London Regionalism, Sky Goodden sat down with representatives of several Regionalist generations: Ross Woodman, Joel Faflak, Sky Glabush, Ted Goodden (the author’s father), Michael Gibson, Jennie Kraehling, and Jason McLean. They discussed the origins and future potential of the still-flexing movement.

Everyone at the table was poised to comment on London’s Regionalism, and the conversation took place at a telling moment. Poet, critic, and scholar Ross Woodman was a crucial proponent of many Regionalist artists’ ascendancy, especially Chambers’s, for whom Woodman wrote formative texts that launched the artist’s career. Woodman was, at the time of our discussion, nearing the end of his life. He passed away on March 20, 2014. This was his last taped interview.

Sky Glabush and Joel Faflak were editing a book, at the time, Reconsidering Regionalism, which was published in early 2015. Further, Glabush had recently launched an artist practice in London whose painting, at times, echoes the work of Chambers’s.

Michael Gibson has been at the helm of London’s most respected commercial gallery for more than thirty years, offering a platform to both the foundational and emerging generations of Regionalist art. His associate director, Jennie Kraehling, curated Not Bad For London in November 2011, confidently framing the emerging-artist scene as one that counted, and arguing for its connection to the generations it succeeded.

Jason McLean was preparing, then, to leave London for New York and Los Angeles, as his star continued to rise and his “Regionalist” lexicon found meaning in new, more international contexts.

Similarly, stained-glass artist Ted Goodden was, at that moment, anticipating his departure from his longtime base, exiting the scene with a defining show titled Postcards From the Floating World (March 2012) that would see him re-imagine his urban landscape as one unpeopled, a haunted station.

For everyone involved, notions of Regionalism were potent and reconfiguring.

This conversation took place in 2012 at the Gibson Gallery, in London, Ontario, with Sky Goodden as moderator interviewing Ross Woodman, Joel Flaflak, Sky Glabush, Ted Goodden, Michael Gibson, Jennie Kraehling, and Jason McLean.

Sky Goodden: Were Regionalists aware they were such? Would they have used the term or described themselves in that light?

Ted Goodden: It was a very affirmative, very chaotic time, and intellectually it wasn’t especially coherent. All sorts of things were working into the mix. You had Marshall McLuhan being referenced, or Greg Curnoe would be finding folk artists; he’d be out in the county and see someone doing lawn ornaments and he’d get excited about that. And one had the sense that he was getting excited simply because it was happening here, and because it wasn’t considered art.

Sky Goodden: Why did Regionalism happen here and not elsewhere?

Ted Goodden: Part of the anti-establishment feeling around that movement, getting in the face of the institutions – including the regional gallery – was wrapped up in the beginnings of a post-colonial mentality emerging. And in that context, London is a special case. In Australia they talk about the “cultural cringe.” And we get that here, because we have a city that’s named after another real city. We have a river that’s named after another real river. It goes on and on. The colonial heritage here is an embarrassment to someone wanting to make a special claim and assert themself. It made London a tinder-box. We’re under the constant vigilance of what we called the “old fur.”

But the character of London is the ability to take opposing, high-tension kinds of issues – American versus British; colonial influences; French versus English; Catholic versus Protestant; conservative versus liberal – and roll it up into the middle so it makes no noise. It’s neutralizing.

Sky Goodden: Ross, it falls to certain critics to name a thing as it’s emerging. You’ve carried a lot of the Regionalist artists to the leger of the canon, particularly with Jack Chambers. How aware were you that you were naming something at the crucial moment of its occurrence?

Ross Woodman: I wasn’t really aware of that at all, particularly with Chambers; I was just interested in the art. I knew Jack’s work, and would talk to him about it daily. But I would also tell him about what I was teaching, particularly with the Romantics. And I was aware that I would leave him in the studio with those ideas, and then I would leave with mine, and go to the lecture hall, and talk about him in the context of Shelley and Keats. And I was just so thrilled to be able to talk about a London artist in that context at all.

Sky Goodden: Sky Glabush and Jason McLean, what did you know about London’s Regionalist movement before you began working in its second-generation context?

Sky Glabush: I knew very little about London when I moved here. But part of my transition of moving and living here was to try to figure out what the place signified. I struggled – and still struggle – to locate London, and find out what is the heart of it.

Jason McLean: We were always taught in high school about Greg Curnoe and Murray Favro. I was aware of it at a young age. But I guess the reason I was a bit hesitant about it, when I came back to London [having been raised here many years before], was that it seemed a bit cliché to jump right into that, to come back to Curnoe and Chambers, and get right back into things from 23 years ago.

It’s like if you go to Vancouver and you’re a photographer and you get right into Dan Graham and Robert Smithson, and shooting Photoconceptualism. It’s so proven, it’s easy. I didn’t mind it at first, but then I thought, “I’m going full circle.” I wasn’t into staying in London and being anti-America.

But being in LA, recently, I think Regionalism is something I do wherever I live. I think I did that in Vancouver too. It’s an aesthetic formed by wherever I live, a gravitational pull.

Sky Goodden: Jennie, you curated a show that focused on a suggested new-wave generation of London Regionalists, featuring Marc Bell, James Kirkpatrick, Amy Lockhart, Jason McLean, Jamie Q, Peter Thompson and Billy Bert Young. Where did the idea for the Not Bad For London show emerge?

Jennie Kraehling: It happened in a way where you’d go to one studio and ask who they were working with, and they’d name another name, and you’d go to that studio – and it just so happened to be an organic group of seven.

Part of the point was to show that there’s a group of people here who support one another. They’re not back-stabbing, or worrying about one getting more wall space than the other; they really are collaborative. It was the youthful energy that was a breath of fresh air.

But what’s interesting is that each and every one of them is influenced by someone else, depending on where they’d come from. So five of the seven come from London and had gone to [H.B.] Beal [Secondary School], so they knew of Paterson Ewen, and Chambers, and Curnoe. But they also work a tremendous amount outside of London as well; their influences are national and international, looking at other ’zine artists, collaborative groups in Chicago or Winnipeg, musicians.

Sky Goodden: Is the main distinction between these two generations defined by their attitudes to the international community, then? Greg Curnoe resisted the international – more truly, the American – influence; now these younger artists are seeking it. Is that what makes the ultimate difference between these Regionalist generations?

Michael Gibson: This recent group is communicating with the global situation and wanting to parlay that through the urban space, as anonymous. Its “market identity” is completely broad-ranging; it’s every place and no place at the same time.

Joel Faflak: And then it gets away from the nostalgia or anxiety about London having to have an identity.

Michael Gibson: I have to go down in age to get into these guys, who are averaging in their mid-thirties. And it was an opportunity to take a risk, but an admission to myself that I’m not going anywhere. ’Cause when you live here – or anywhere – you think, “soon as I do this, I’ll move. London, LA, San Francisco.” But part of this show was an admission to myself that that’s not going to happen; I’m here now.

Sky Goodden: It’s interesting that Jack Chambers returned to London, Ontario, in 1961 after several years abroad, and brought with him all these aesthetic influences from Spain. Meanwhile Greg Curnoe was continuing to plant his influence here. How did those two respond to one another, and how did their public react to the difference?

Ross Woodman: When Jack came back to Canada I was very interested in his work. I wasn’t particularly interested in Greg’s work, though I was here with Greg’s work that whole time. Jack’s reputation – in part due to my own writing – carried a pretty 19th-century notion of Regionalism, and [that] didn’t fit with Greg’s.

The gallery here decided to put on a Chambers exhibition in 1980, and I wrote an introduction to that, and talked about Curnoe and Chambers at great length, and Olga [Jack Chambers’s wife] said, “take all of those comparisons out, or I won’t have the show.” She was that adamant. And I said, “no, I won’t.” But that was the feeling of London. The London view by London artists was highly defined; if you liked Jack, you didn’t like Greg.

That’s completely changed now. I’d like to go back and write about that. The fact that you can now accept Curnoe and Chambers, and see the influence … If I were to write about London’s Regionalism, now, I wouldn’t be setting them up against one another, but [would] show how they related to each other

Ted Goodden: I remember growing up, that polarity between Chambers and Curnoe was marked. One classified as Pop Art and the other as classical European art. Who was on the right path? Who was important? It’s been neutralized since then, in the way that London can neutralize things. But the polarity was very important. It created a whole range of possibilities in between, and attracted a lot of people to the city.

Curnoe did great work in demonstrating that you can be an artist in London, and it’s a kind of a living. You didn’t have to leave the city to do it. I always think of that self-portrait of his in the tweed coat, walking up to his studio on Richmond Street thinking about the Chicago Blackhawks, and the line that follows it is brilliant: “love doesn’t last very long but thinking about it does.” [laughs]

But he’s a workman.

Chambers makes this video of his life in that studio, and you see Curnoe coming in, in his tweed coat, with an awful metal trashcan – he’s gotta take the garbage in – he’s going up a miserable staircase in snowy London. This is a working man, he’s going to his office downtown. He’s going to do art for the whole day, and people are going to drop in that studio during the day and yack and yack and yack, and it’s all going to be involved in the work.

Sky Goodden: Sky Glabush, how did you start to position yourself in relation to London’s Regionalist movement, considering you were coming from the outside?

Sky Glabush: When I first moved here, I remember having a conversation with Kelly Wood about the subject of my work. I was building these models and maquettes, and feeling super contrived. And I said, “I really wish I could just walk out the door of my house and that would be the subject matter.” In other words, that it would be all around me.

In some ways, I literalized that. The walk from my house to the university took me through Gibbons Park, and I found an analogue in the landscape.

Also, Peter Doig was a big influence, especially when he was painting Southern Ontario. I remember an interview with him where he’s citing David Milne and Paterson Ewen. And the three of them – Doig, Milne, and Ewen – were definitely in my frame of reference when I moved to Southern Ontario.

I remember shortly after having a studio visit with Ross Woodman, and him freaking out because my work reminded him so much of Jack Chambers. And I really had no connection to Chambers at all. The only thing I knew of his was a small reproduction of the 401 Towards London, which I saw when I lived in Amsterdam. When I met Ross, he was so buoyant and excited [about Chambers]; he really got me interested.

Finally I decided that instead of trying to tip-toe around these major Canadian artists, I would just head straight at it. I wouldn’t try to hide those references at all, but jump in with both feet.

Sky Goodden: Were you not a bit intimidated to do that?

Sky Glabush: Yeah, but the stakes were pretty low. It wasn’t like there was a huge audience. I didn’t have a gallery at the time in Ontario. I wasn’t thinking about how the public would react. I was intimidated to think about these artists, but thought the only way to deal with it was just to embrace these references and head straight into them. And to be honest, I never made my way through it; I wasn’t able to make those images my own.

Sky Goodden: What gave you that realization?

Sky Glabush: I had the realization right away. I had this feeling like it was occupied territory.

Sky Goodden: Jason, you were wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m not Greg Curnoe” at the opening of your solo show in London last year. What was the significance of that statement?

Jason McLean: It used to belong to him! A friend of mine knew Zoë Curnoe, and stayed over at Greg’s house and had a sleepover. She forgot to bring something to wear at night, and got that shirt. And she traded me for it, and I thought it was really funny to wear. I think Michael Klein made it, from MKG127. He was amazed to see that shirt on me, as I think there were only twenty made. I was kind of careful about where I wore it. I didn’t want to wear it around Sheila [Curnoe], for instance, and I was precious with it at first. But it was fading and I thought, “oh whatever.” I like playing around with clothes, and you can do it with regional identity – like something that belonged to your grandparents – and then it starts affecting your dreams and your daily life, and the way people perceive you. I’ve played around with that a lot.

Sky Goodden: Did it mean something more, though? That statement?

Jason McLean: I try to fight the handle of being a Regionalist, but I guess I am. The risk is that when people put a label on something, they think they have you figured out and move on to the next thing. I remember some collectors in Vancouver saying, “here comes Jason the drawer,” and I thought, “oh, I do so much different stuff than drawing.” But whenever I’d cross over to performance art, music or food-related events, or obscure things that people who are familiar with my career wouldn’t know about, I’d wear my London shirts, or [perform] local content related to our jokes. Regionalism is just like any niche, a signifier and a bit of a trap.

Sky Goodden: Jason, you recently moved to New York, and you’re now in LA. Were these shifts motivated by a desire to shake your affiliation to Regionalism?

Jason McLean: Not at all. I felt like the recession really killed a lot of things to do with Canadian art on the international scene, and with my own career. I felt like being in larger centres would really help with that. I wanted to keep pushing forward on the international level. I was restless. And it was very practical. I felt like I had too much life left in me.

Sky Goodden: Sky Glabush and Joel Flaflak, where did the Regionalism Reconsidered book come out of?

Joel Faflak: Out of Sky Glabush’s living room. We had just met one another, and we wanted to do a project of some kind. Our idea morphed into a variety of things and one of the things that we lit upon was to look at the idea of Regionalism. In the first incarnation, we discussed the issue of what does it mean to be Regionalist when that term is really dead. But then Gibson’s show Not Bad For London really re-galvanized us. And then we were looking at examples farther afield and I’m starting to see that the issue is splintering and splitting apart, going away and coming back. What does it mean to be in one’s place? Which is to say, one is always a stranger in one’s place. It’s an essential condition of being.

Sky Glabush: I think both Joel and I are a bit uncomfortable speaking as authorities on the subject, because we’re both not from London. And we both don’t really have the deep history and connection to it that a lot of people from London do have. And I think that’s why we maybe did it – because we’re trying to figure out what London is.

Sky Goodden: Ross, you veritably established a movement as it was being enacted. How should we regard the self-consciousness of the Regionalist movement, and does any of its self-perception stand up to time’s passage?

Woodman: When Jack came back, it was with European painting. And London promoted Europe. It had a built-in snobbery to it. And Jack used that, and was aware of that. But cut through that pretty clearly by showing Greg’s work, and stressing something quite different.

London has a history now. That history can now be told. And as you start to tell it, the history itself changes. The evaluation changes; the criticism changes; the position you take changes. I would find myself now writing about Chambers quite differently. And relieved to be doing that. Anxious to be doing that.

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