It has been suggested by Winnipeg artist / writer Cliff Eyland when we met in the gulag archipelago of Saskatoon, that I’m more like an American – specifically a New Yorker, Cliff said – than a Canadian. When I didn’t express offense at this, but amusement, he elaborated to say that he had this impression (one that’s only deepened since, he said recently) due to my almost combative nature of speaking about art, that I not only seemed interested in “contested narratives”, but that I thrive on them. This isn’t untrue, and perhaps that’s why I disdain so much “arts writing” that ignores – or actively denies – how some of the best Art encompasses contradictory ideas.
Recently, while enjoying the lovely book co-produced by Rodman Hall for Sarindar Dhaliwal’s Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies, a conversation I had with RHAC Curator Marcie Bronson about that exhibition came back to me. Specifically, how I saw it from one place when I wrote on it for Magenta (embracing my history nerd aesthetic). Talking to Marcie, and then Sarindar’s talk, offered two differing / intersecting narratives. Bronson was interested in a piece that had a more feminist positioning, whereas Dhaliwal reminisced with memories and experiences that defined the creation of each work. Even more, for example, Dhaliwal had a piece referencing Enoch Powell, and a quick google search will explain why if I returned to Radcliffe now, many current media tropes about “immigrants” and “nation” would “colour” my response…
My, what a tangent: but as I faced Dennis Tourbin’s painting October Fragments at Rodman Hall, the newest addition to Emma German’s curatorial challenge Up Close and In Motion, contested narratives surfaced. This massive painting whose name references The October Crisis, Quebec Separatism (or perhaps you prefer “Nationalism”?) and the terrorist FLQ (ah, wait, perhaps you prefer “freedom fighters”?) offers a reminder of what was one of the most dividing moments of Canadian history. Back then another Trudeau was in Rideau Hall (“How far will you go”, they asked Pierre when he employed the War Measures Act, and his response was typically caustic and clear (or maybe you prefer “arrogant”?): “Just watch me.”)
A large, colourful, yet flat, piece, Tourbin gives us scraps painted from newspapers, both privileging / problematizing the torn bits of “headline” by isolating them in heavy black, acidic yellows, a slash of red and loud purple. There’s a forced iconicism to the “fragments.” (we don’t consider Canadian history iconic, do we? I mean, there’s Oka, with the nose-to-nose-eye-to-eye-stare-down but I’m at a loss for another…). FLQ terrorist (or you prefer “activist”?) Paul Rose “raises his fist in defiance” (I’m quoting the painting quoting a newspaper article) leaving the courtroom. Then Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, in another “fragment” of the picture, peering down at Laporte’s corpse. Laporte was murdered by the FLQ, after being abducted, just as British Trade Commissioner James Cross was, but instead released.
Or, let’s “channel” the unofficial FLQ manifesto (written by Pierre Vallières, while imprisoned in America, following the tradition of “prison” manifestos, from Gramsci to Trotsky), with the unforgettable title of White N***ers of America. The FLQ considered Cross an instrument of the colonial British Empire and Laporte a quisling, a traitor. The FLQ and many of the “thinkers” of this movement were – as the October Crisis occurred in 1970 – avowedly Marxist, just like (arguably one of the greatest Canadian – or should I say Quebecois, revising again – painters ever) Paul – Emile Borduas’ La Refus Globale was years earlier, just as the SDS, or Weathermen in America, or sundry other revolutionary groups of that era. Yes, it’s surely more nuanced than that brief synopsis suggests, but I’ve already talked “too much about politics and not art” as I so often do. Visit your library, and read multiple historians, of both the right and left, with skepticism of any who asserts only one “version.”
Much has changed in the nearly five decades since the October Crisis: but I still know people that disagreeing with their opinion on it will brook an argument, and it may be a scar, but it still itches, for sure.
Here’s some of Tourbin’s own words on his work in this political arena: “…I had been developing individual visual poems, large colourful canvases of painted words, painted poems. A recurring theme in these works was the subject of The October Crisis…[something] that fascinated me right from the beginning. The idea that language could become so much part of our destiny intrigued me. I began to write about my impressions of the October Crisis, My impressions of how the details of the events were presented to the public through the News media….was dealing with a specific event in history and I was able to draw on the resources of the media.
I could use pictures of the actual events, sounds of the people involved, the News broadcasts, the newspaper headlines. These fragmented pieces of information became the narrative elements for the entire work.”
An interesting side note: many of the works that German has selected for Up Close have been personally evocative for me (Philia brought me back to the 1990s and HIV / AIDS, for example). When first seeing October Fragments, I was reminded of studying this in high school and how that project was one of many from that time (researching Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution, in my French Class, or Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute or Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The latter two novels both inhabit the Duplessis era Quebec that birthed the FLQ…). These all set me on my path of obsession with “sites of contested narratives” in history, and in visual arts – and that is something I share, I think, with Tourbin, in many of his works, but especially here in October Fragments.
This iteration of Up Close and In Motion that includes this piece by Tourbin (as well as his La ville dort / The city sleeps) is on display at RHAC. It will shift soon, and again, until the historical exploration of the collection at RHAC continues into 2019. Image credit: Danny Custodio, Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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.