At the center of contemporary art, there is increasingly the absence of any center at all. We are flown wide, work digitally, and shuttle our practices aloft in some great air vent in the ether. And yet this wasn’t always true, at least in Canada – the London, Ontario art scene in the 1960s produced a hub of defiance against the recognized global art center of New York, with a group of artists intent on “staying home.” As art historian Terrence Heath wrote, artists like Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, and Murray Favro “sought out and found, in their own lives and localities, the stuff of their art.” Regionalism gained international attention, in fact, and attracted more talent still. And while its foundation would be shook, at the end of that decade, by a protested urban destruction that wiped out many of its artists’ studios, the ethos of London’s Regionalism lives on today, with a wave of younger artists re-establishing its community-oriented precepts.
One of Regionalism’s earlier contributors, Robert Fones – whose solo exhibition, Notes / Sutterlin Works / Contes en Trompe-l’oeil, is currently on at Olga Korper Gallery – left for Toronto in 1976, but carried with him a commitment to Regionalism’s main tenets. His practice, for the past forty years, has rooted into Toronto’s community, with a long-time studio where General Idea first established itself, at the back of the iconic artist-book shop, Art Metropole, and now in the cultural hub of 401 Richmond; an impacting presence on the boards of publications, museums, and artist-run centers; and an attention, in his practice, to the signification of geological and cultural change. Fones, one of the founding members of London’s historic Forest City Gallery, has also kept a hand in the evolution of London Regionalism, curating, in 2011, a survey of Greg Curnoe’s Cut-Out works at Museum London.
In an effort to bring renewed attention to Fones’s storied practice and enduring community presence, I asked London-based artist James Kirkpatrick – arguably a central member of the “Neo-Regionalist” movement, especially in his capacity as a graffiti and hip-hop artist – to come to Toronto for a conversation with Fones about the intersections and departures they’ve experienced across their art communities and their generational divide. Moving through Fones’s current exhibition, the artists examine how place gets arranged and represented spatially, and the signs we manifest to tell us where we are.
– Sky Goodden
Robert Fones: My friend Chris Dewdney says there is something in the water in London, Ontario that generates creativity.
James Kirkpatrick: I agree, dealing with all the conservatives there, being creative is the only way to exist.
From my perspective, as a past student of Bealart [the art program at H. B. Beal Secondary School], the complexity in your early work that I have seen […] there is a lot more playing with concepts than a lot of young art I see these days. I wonder where that comes from. Is it the people you were with? Or just how your mind was working?
RF: I think it’s a combination of those things. When I was starting out as a young artist in London there were lots of artists who were similarly interested in a wide variety of things. Greg [Curnoe] is a good example of that type of person. He was interested in music, poetry, art, literature, film … many things. If you were friends with him, he would share resources with you and suggest books, movies, and artists you should look at. There were people in a wide variety of fields that interacted with you. Which I don’t think often happens in Toronto where all of those different disciplines are much more separated. But in London it was small enough that you couldn’t survive as a creative energy if you were isolated. So you had to be a part of that mélange.
You mentioned that young artists today at Bealart are not making the same kind of art that I was making. So, what’s the difference do you think?
JK: I think that artists these days, the complexity and maturity in their work comes a little bit later, if they keep going with it. It seems like there are lots of trends right now; there is so much information in the internet age, and because we are in the middle of it, we don’t have clear perspective.
It seems that the early Regionalists came out right away making work that had a youthful energy but with a lot of depth. I don’t know if it’s because spaces like 20/20 Gallery were involved with Bealart, or that there were defined movements that had happened close to that time period: Abstract Expressionism in New York, and then Painters Eleven in Canada, and Neo-Dada …
RF: There is always that pressure for young artists to produce what is seen as artwork. Maybe that is being proliferated more readily these days. I don’t think there is an imperialistic art center the way there was in my day, where New York was the place. In my experience in London, there were a lot of people who were excellent models for moving outside the conventions of what it meant to be an artist. Murray Favro was building a half-scale model of a Saber Jet. I saw it in Murray’s studio when I was looking for my own studio on Dundas Street. Is it art? Is it not art? He was an established artist and wasn’t worried about that because that’s what he was interested in doing. Royden Rabinowitch was making sculptures out of barrel staves. Keewatin Dewdney had invented his own phonetic alphabet and used it in his film, The Maltese Cross Movement. Les Levine had an exhibition that I saw at 20/20 Gallery of vacuum-formed plastic objects. There were enough people around the scene like that to give you that liberty to just pursue whatever interested you.
JK: You have seen both the London, Ontario and Toronto art community grow over the last 50 years. Can you reflect on these evolutions? What have you seen happen particularly in the sense of community, Regionalism, and identity?
RF: There are interesting parallels and differences from when I was in London. When I rented my first studio in November 1968, a lot of the original Victorian town was intact. In 1972, they started demolishing whole blocks of the downtown core. So, history was just erased. Many artists lost their studios and had to move away from the downtown area and find other studios. It was a real end to what is sometimes called the Swinging London scene of the 1960s. The scene changed dramatically after that.
I don’t think it’s quite the same in Toronto. There is a bigger downtown here, but there is a similar process of old buildings being demolished, or being demolished with the facades preserved, and I think that has an impact on one’s sense of place in a city.
Landmarks are suddenly gone. And facades alone do not preserve history. History has happened inside those spaces. It gives me and I think some other people a real sense of insecurity because the landscape you are familiar with is being bit-by-bit eaten away. Along with that landscape being eaten away is the ability to survive. The rents keep going up, the cost of housing keeps going up. It’s an interesting contrast to when I started out as an artist in London paying a modest $50 a month rent to what it’s like in Toronto now, where many young artists have to share studio spaces because rents are so high.
How do you understand Regionalism, what does it mean to you, how do you interpret it?
JK: For me, what I relate to the most within the traditional story of Regionalism is about being in a space or a city in a certain time, and making work at that time that somehow reflects you being there at that time and in that place. I feel that happens in my creative practice as well as being active within a community and taking part in a community creatively with its people. With today’s climate, and the digital world, it’s a bit different. Knowledge and communication are being passed around more quickly. Even a thing like specific underground graffiti styles that were more regional in the past … people are doing what used to be specific to Philadelphia, California, or Brazil, in London.
RF: It’s an interesting question: can you even have Regionalism today with so many influences coming from all over the world?
JK: As the filmmaker Irene Bindi wrote, “The London Regionalism movement is not an ‘ism’ at all but a group of artists that have chosen to stay home.” What has it meant to you and how has it refocused your practice to shift away from the London Regionalism to the more international art center of Toronto?
RF: I was not active as an artist in London that long. I left in 1976, having spent about 10 years in the London art scene. I left because I felt like it was too small of a scene and I was too stereotyped within it. A very small part of my art career was in London. Yes, it had an impact for sure. But I have spent much, much longer now working in Toronto. All the work in this show was made in Toronto but influenced by diverse sources in France and Germany. Greg Curnoe also looked far beyond London for his sources and inspiration.
JK: Yeah, though I think you have a brilliant understanding of the history of London. Also, your connections and friendships with people like Curnoe, and doing the Cut-Out show for him at Museum London … In reality, though, I can see you are looking at a lot of things – and where you take yourself and your work is your own region in a sense.
RF: Yes, that’s fair to say. It reminds me of looking at a friend’s cottage once at night when it was all lit up. I looked at the cottage and I thought, “the cottage isn’t the thing that’s most important to me. It is a building with lights on and what I really love the most about it is the people who are there.” That’s kind of a metaphor for what we are both saying. It is you and how sensitive you are to the environment you are in, and what you do with it that is important. It’s not the physical place. It is how sensitive you are to your life experiences.
JK: I feel that your entire show can really exist as one work, and within it, I see this shifting back and forth that maintains a balance. How does the watercolor maxim Ich sterbe fit into everything?
RF: It’s a text from a medieval manuscript that is in the British library. The original text is in a form of old English and I translated it to German for the watercolor. The text originally accompanied an illustration of a father with six kids, carrying all of their possessions on their backs. They are poor and homeless wanderers. Scholars have speculated that they are Jewish because there was a period when all Jews were banned from England. The text above one of the kids states “I die from heat,” and the other kid is saying “we die from cold.”
JK: It’s a continuation of that presentation of opposites.
RF: What I was drawn to is the contradiction of what these kids are saying in this text. Also I am aware of how the physical form of language is separate from the meaning, and I like that struggle to read a text like the ones that I created for this show. Most of them use Sutterlin, which was a cursive writing style taught in Germany between 1920 and 1941. It is an archaic cursive style and the letterforms are hard to read so it really slows down my reading process, to understand the meaning of text.
JK: At the exhibition opening you were telling me how the use of Sutterlin text was banished by the Nazis around 1941. It’s interesting to see the connection between the use of a language that was chased away and the people being forced out as well.
RF: Yeah there is a hint of a similar narrative with the Jewish family depicted in the Stowe manuscript from the British Library. This family was being persecuted long before Jews in Germany began to be persecuted during WWII. You get a fragment of information about what the family in the Stowe manuscripts were going through.
JK: Nine of your trompe-l’oeil paintings are abstract representations of experiences, stories, memory pieces, or objects you came across while living in France, and the other six are referencing the clothing of figures within an Antoine Watteau painting. You said that the Watteau painting was originally created as a sign for a gallery owned by Edme-François Gersaint in France, and that this painting at one point would have hung above the gallery door functioning as a tool to explain that there was an art gallery behind these walls.
RF: Yes, it must have been spectacular to see this painting hanging above the entrance to the gallery. The painting shows the interior of the gallery, an illusion, and then you can step into the real gallery and be one of the people in the painting looking at art and buying art. It’s a curious idea.
JK: I think about it being there at a time when most people couldn’t read as much. There were so many restaurants or pubs that would have a picture of a dog and bird and a person would say to a friend “meet me at the dog and bird.”
RF: Exactly. There were lots of visual signs like that. As you say, most people were illiterate at that time – probably not the people who went to Gersaint’s gallery – but that shop sign was in the tradition of what was being done at that time, the pictorial shop signs, and was within Watteau’s capabilities as an artist. I don’t know if he ever did any lettering. It might have been out of his realm as a painter.
JK: I see parallels. Watteau’s sign painting has figures illustrating a situation instead of having written letters. In your text-based work you flip the function or change the original intent of a statement or poem by taking the text and converting it into a painting that often becomes illegible at first sight. Someone looking at your paintings can become more captivated with it as a painting, and not recognize the importance of the text that inspired the work.
To further the connections, I see similarities within the change of function for the white bags with Sutterlin cursive on them, and Watteau’s painting. The bags at one time had a purpose but are now converted into art, just as the Watteau painting was.
RF: It’s a comparable process. I was also thinking of the bags and some of the maxims in the show as signs as well, because they either exist as commercial objects, like the bags, or they use simple statements that might appeal to a broad spectrum of society.
JK: It is exciting that the origins of the two sets of tromp-l’oeil paintings in this exhibition are inspired by completely different things yet are similar in the final outcome. They all arrive as these paintings imitating 3D. The origin and inspiration of your early trompe-l’oeil paintings … was that not from Pompeii and that style of painting came from faking the look of marble walls?
RF: Yes, instead of using actual marble panels, they painted a trompe-l’oeil illusion of those panels, painting the “beveled” edges as if they were being hit by light to create a three-dimensional look. It’s called “First Style” painting and is the oldest style of wall painting at Pompeii. Gradually wall painting at Pompeii became even more illusionistic. But that First Style painting was one of the early influences on these trompe-l’oeil works. I had used a form of trompe-l’oeil previously in the lettered Niche Paintings from 1992 and the Head Paintings from 1995. Both evolved out of what I had learned about creating three-dimensional-looking letters from a Victorian sign-painting instruction book. So signage has been on ongoing interest of mine and has manifested itself in many ways throughout my life as an artist. In a way, I learned how to paint from that sign-painting book, rather than from any art training.