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Excelsior! at the Niagara Artists Centre

Excelsior! at the Niagara Artists Centre

Regionalist Artist Dave Gordon is Interviewed by NAC’s Minister of Energy, Minds, and Resources, Stephen Remus.

Kingston Ontario artist Dave Gordon’s survey of forty years of artwork, Excelsior! 1975-2015 is a testament to working in the ‘wilderness’. Gordon’s paintings are idiosyncratic, humorous and above all display a perceptive eye to our surroundings: woodpiles outside a cabin, figures metaphorically ‘lost’ in the wilderness and farcical political portraits – including many provincial and national politicians. Especially incisive are a series of works produced during the bitter Mike Harris years (those aforementioned ‘lost years’), a perverse take on the Group of Seven, and a recent body of work documenting Gordon’s travels to Syria. In rejecting the spurious intellectualism of conceptual art, Gordon found a way to document the local in a very personal manner. The works are simultaneously pastoral and political, finding solace in the landscape.

The show you’re bringing to NAC, Excelsior!, is a survey of forty years of painting. John Boyle once told me he considered the survey Museum London did of his work a tactical error in advancing his career; it gave the assumed authorities permission to prematurely shelve him as history. I wonder if you have concern about breaking the Dylan ‘Don’t look back’ adage, either for the fickle forces that govern an artist’s success, or maybe even for philosophical reasons? Actually I’m thrilled to be having these three shows lined up. The ‘assumed authorities’ hardly know I exist, and most of the work has rarely been shown. There are thousands of artists trying to catch the brass ring of fame and few succeed. At the same time I have a history with Modern Fuel, NAC, and Forest City that deserves to be recognized, and this show will give people an overview of my career. Min Kampf, if you will– Knausgaard, (Norwegian), not Hitler – (Mein Kampf).

Yeh, we probably won’t be using either in the press release to avoid confusion, but I do like the idea of three Artist-Run Centres celebrating a life-long regionalist artist. It’s a prod reminding that everything’s different outside of the M5W.
Let’s talk about the work a bit. I find the affinity between you and Philip Guston, your shared visceral painting style – and even the pointed social commentaries in your work that remind me of the frontal attacks that Grosz, Goya, and our own Mendelson Joe made on stupidity and the crème de la scum – the things that compel me to your work. The urgency in those paintings gets to the frustration and disdain for political hypocrites and the flash-hound seekers of celebrity. It’s like I can cheer for some of those paintings: ‘Stick it to ‘em Dave!’ Is that part of what you’re after? I’m drawn to the work of Grosz, Goya, Guston, Mendelson Joe; also Peter Saul, Leon Golub, Sue Coe, William T. Wiley, John Boyle, Greg Curnoe and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo for their fearlessness and political attitudes. My forays into social commentary are pretty much directed at Canadian Tories – Mike Harris, Stephen Harper etc. and dictators. I’m just one of legions of admirers of Guston’s late work but I discovered it fairly early on and was able to turn Paterson Ewen on to it in London Ontario (Guston did a fantastic big painting of Richard Nixon with phlebitis titled Nixon at San Clemente that is reproduced in a William T. Wiley catalogue but not in any books on Guston, to my knowledge).


Yeah, I looked that up. Nixon at San Clemente is really something – reminded me right away of Steve Martin’s description of a post-Watergate Nixon, exiled and muttering to himself as he trundles along the beach with a metal detector. The conniving, diabolical character in Guston’s painting also has these obvious physical frailties, making him pathetic, it almost humanizes him. Is that part of the appeal for you, to see these figures stripped of ostentation, back to where we can think of them as mere mortals again? You might recall my painting of Conrad Black in his Cardinal Richelieu costume… I put him in the Ontario woods with a racoon, a weasel, and some birds. Similar in intent to Guston’s Nixon, maybe…

I think of your painting style as, well, in some ways, an anti-style, painting without artifice or contrivance. It’s just the straight goods, like you’re stripping it back to where it’s only brush, paint, and canvas, nothing else. With this survey show I’m guessing we’ll see some progress toward that. Are you getting there? That’s a kind way of saying my painting is a bit crude. My painting style seems to bother some people who are looking for finesse. Historical painters that I admire – Cezanne, Marsden Hartley, Charles Burchfield, Albert Ryder, Philip Guston– all exhibit a certain clumsiness, and I’ve always loved the rawness in underground comic artists like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. Actually, because of its former elevated status the whole project of painting is under attack from postmodern and cultural studies theoreticians who view it as retrograde, non- progressive. We’re in a new digital age, and you don’t see a lot of painting shows in the artist-run centres. But there are still a lot of painters out there, and most (all?) of the critics and art writers who disparage painting in general don’t draw or paint, so their opinions are suspect to me. Duchamp, returning from Munich in 1912, wrote to himself, “Marcel, no more painting, go get a job.” In spite of Duchamp, painting still has the power to astonish (as in, “with an apple I will astonish Paris”). Guston:– “I’ve never cared for Duchamp. I think he’s been one of the worst influences in the century…I think he was an amateur…he did some paintings and that was it.” Back to the idea of ‘crude’ – I seem to have a facility with watercolour that eludes me with acrylic. As Popeye says, “I yam what I yam”.


 Back to that great list of artists you admire – there aren’t many younger than 60, save for maybe some of the Charlie Hebdo crew. To me – with the exception of Native artists like Skawennati, Kent Monkman, Rebecca Belmore – young Canadian artists are reluctant to make political statements with their work, most inhabit a very ambivalent space. Why do you think that is? I feel like we’re in need of a more politically guided commentary right now.
I’ll respond to this with a perceptive, longish quote from critic Terence Dick in an Akimblog:
“If I was the type of critic who identified generational shifts, I might call the present moment ‘New Materialism’. After perusing the cluster of galleries at Bloor and Landsdowne, I was sorely tempted to make the claim. Every exhibition was obsessed with things. Like conceptualism never happened and content was old hat, these artists aren’t interested in creating meaning; instead, they discover it in the world of consumer goods a la Duchamp’s readymades. Art is, after all, just an object that has no function. … It’s all very fun and engaging, but I left feeling somewhat empty, which is, I supposed appropriate given that it’s not really about anything except itself. Sure, there is a slight undercurrent concerned with the social and active artifying of life, but the ultimate end is always delight in the materiality of things. It strikes me as symptomatic of a generation (meaning everyone who exists now) that spends a large portion of their lives in mediated experience. Just as words and images are habitually cut and pasted, so now objects around us are reconfigured – as if Photoshop was applied to reality (whatever that is). The thing about this obsession with things as things apart from purposes, narratives, economies, politics, religion, etc. is that it requires an audience apart from purposes, narratives, economies, politics, religion, etc. A fuddy-duddy like me needs to know where he’s coming from to know here he’s at, but that’s old news and this is the new thing” (end quote)

Not long after you told me the title of this show Excelsior! and Thurber’s take on the Longfellow poem, I came across some lines from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Til sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.” These lines seem a fit for the darkly comic notions of progress that you’ve been working with for a long time. Futility seems one of the least understood aspects of our culture; to acknowledge it is almost to step outside of the bounds of what society accepts, but all of our existences are profoundly shaped by it. Would we be better off if we faced up to it?  When I was trying to come up with the title for my show I recalled an exhibition I had at Forest City Gallery in 1974 – those were the days, members were given a show every year if they wanted one – that illustrated a chess problem by a Russian composer named Korolkov published in a book titled Test Tube Chess. The 1841 Longfellow poem invites parody and has been satirised often, but the chess problem isn’t satire. It distils the poem. A lowly white pawn starts out on the square b2 and captures opposing pawns and pieces all the way up the board to h8 where it itself is captured (dies). The beauty of the problem is that there are no other logical moves other than the pawn’s inexorable climb to the queening square and extinction, and by dying allows the white queen back on the second rank to give check and stop the black pawns that are poised to become queens themselves, and win the game. I used photographs and a rubber latex grid that climbed up the wall to realize the piece. I probably mystified a lot of non-chess-playing viewers, but for me it touched on long-term themes to be explored in my art work – chess, literature, and mountains. I don’t know about facing up to futility – that seems futile.

Right, what could be more futile than delving into futility itself? And I guess the distinction with Korolkov’s chess problem (and the Longfellow poem) is that there’s an outcome – the benefit of victory through sacrifice. I guess this makes it less Sisyphean and a little more hopeful. Exactly.

Dave Gordon’s exhibit Excelsior! 1975-2015: A survey of forty years of artwork opens in the Show Room Gallery at the Niagara Artists Centre at 354 St. Paul on by Saturday 29 August at 7PM. The reception and exhibit are fee and open to the public. There will be an artist talk and recep.tion will be followed by a performance by Sound+Sound with visuals by Adam CK Vollick. The exhibition is generously supported in part by Shannon Passero. For information contact NAC at 905-641-0331 or

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