When I was a child, one of the albums that was played over and over again was Stompin’ Tom Connors at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. It featured a few other singers, but it was a double record, live, and only years later did I learn that there is, in fact, a film of it (that I watched this in Saskatchewan – roll on, roll on, Skatchwan – was fitting. I was sick with a fever, so there’s a filmy dream quality to that memory).
Now, at the risk of having my Canadian citizenship revoked, I generally can take or leave a lot of Connors‘ music, and the songs I enjoy tend to be the less popular ones. There’s points where nostalgia overrides quality, of course, and if I still had a band we’d still do Sudbury Saturday Night and I can sing all the words to Goodbye Rubberhead. (“..that woman of mine will be in a box of pine before I hock my old guitar….” Okay, that one hasn’t aged very well, ahem, sorry.)
Songs like Movin’ In (From Montreal by Train) and Tilsonburg are the spiritual ancestors of The Tragically Hip’s Bobcaygeon or Wheat Kings (perhaps my favourite Hip song, and definitely because of having lived in the “Paris of the Prairies”). Perhaps that’s the endurance of Connors: stories about the places we live in, our stories, are important. I made a similar observation years ago, for a show that Elwood Jimmy curated of Indigenous artists and artists of colour who worked in video, as the documentary tradition was one that was to be respected, and employed, to tell your own story.
But here’s the thing: in seeing John Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, in the latest iteration of Up Close and In Motion at Rodman Hall, this evocation of “CanCon” was not only brought back to me, but had a new layer added to it. Another sheen of regionalism, or perhaps another aspect of the history that informs contemporary culture (The Rheostatics, whom made In The Soil 2017 so wonderful, make no bones of their debt to Connor). Further, Connors was often uncompromising in his Canadian nationalism, willing to publicly criticise artists and funders whom he felt were too sycophantic to America, or too focused on America, over Canadian audiences or stories.
This painting is by John Boyle, whom like many of the current artists on display in the Hansen space (Greg Curnoe among them, of the same era and political positioning as Boyle), has had a strong hand in not only the history of art in the Niagara and Southern Ontario region, but is a name that came up repeatedly years ago when I was working at the Art Gallery of Windsor. I was one of several researchers for Bob McKaskell’s exhibition Making It New! (the big sixties show!) (I was engaged with this endeavour in the mid 1990s, and this show later travelled to a few different locales). This period – the 1960s – was significant to Canadian art: artist run centres – like Niagara Artist Centre (NAC) (founded in 1969) – were established, and some of the same breaking of barriers and heirarchy that we saw in other social spaces also took place in the Canadian art world. Spaces exclusively for, and about, female artists came into being. Artists of colour, of Indigenous heritage, as well as queer or social activistist oriented, moved into the mainstream, no longer willing to be ignored or marginalized (though there’s much work still to be done there. Too many instances of ghettoization and exploitation of said artists to “secure” funding still happens, and it is still disrespectful exploitation…looking at you, Gordon Snelgrove).
The “novel” idea that artists must be paid for their work (though some places, and some people, still seem to need reminding of this – still looking at you, Saskatoon) was just one way the landscape shifted tectonically. Boyle was a player in that, both as an artist but also in a seminal case regarding artist fees in public galleries. CARFAC was founded in this period (1968, in London, and Greg Curnoe was one of the original board members). Their most recent campaign – Has the Artist been paid? – indicates how this battle, that Boyle, along with many like minded artists and activists started – indicates that this battle is far from settled…and Connors also must be mentioned, in terms of his starting a record label and supporting Canadian musicians, and how that ground has continued to be built upon.
Ideas of Canadian content have been besmirched by people like Bryan Adams (“Now, now, the Canadian Government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions”) and it can be as much of a bane as a boon (my own experience of karaoke Mmodernism™ on the prairies echoed that). But what’s also engaging about Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom (made in 1974) is how it fits within the current 24 hour news cycle jabber emanating from America, how we may be engaged in a trade war that can only escalate, and how American POTUS ignorance is combining with somewhat typical American cowardly deference (whether GOP spinelessness or the American unwillingness to genuinely criticise and hold to account their president, too blinded by their “faith” in their “exceptionalism”).
In Boyle’s painting, Tom smiles back at us, as St. Paul Street stretches in the background. Tom, in fact, stands at the point on Ontario and St. Paul where Boyle’s studio used to be, and Boyle’s work was (like Greg Curnoe, who has a piece to the right of Boyle in the Hansen Gallery) always informed by his immediate surroundings, his lived experience, and his community. St. Paul, as painted here, is an historic, not contemporary (not even to 1974, when Boyle painted this. One of the ways in which I enjoy social media is that when I posted something about this painting, it turned into a discussion – with images provided by the participants – of St. Paul from previous eras): Connors’ shirt and side burns are flamboyantly from the 1970s and the colours owe more to fantasy than realism.
Perhaps that’s also a nod to the idealism that informed that 1960s into arly 1970s period, especially in terms of telling – and valuing – Canadian stories. Perhaps its also a good reminder of how cities and neighbourhoods are shaped as much by ideals as business, as much by people as by anything else. In a long ranging conversation that was inspired by this work, I told local artist / educator Arnold McBay that art cannot change the world, but it can change people, and then its up to us to do something with that.
This latest version of Up Close and In Motion is on display until the end of June, but new and different works will be on display until January 2019.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.