Saturday, March 20, 2010

Robert Pope's essay, Vanguard Magazine, Janice Leonard, Eric Walker (Hidden Treasures), Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, 1987

Eric’s note, March 20, 2010, What I like most about Robert’s essay is that he dared to criticize the work, he felt it was necessary for balance, unlike the vast floods of supposititious puffery and propaganda that passes for “art criticism” today, and in retrospect I think he was right. Robert was a very good and daring painter. He died young of cancer.

Robert Pope's essay (extract) Janice Leonard - Eric Walker (Hidden Treasures), Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, September 19 /October 18, 1987 from Vanguard, Vancouver, December 1987/January 1988

Part history lesson and part funhouse, this double exhibition of painted constructions from 1989 to 1987 treads a fine line between hipness and sincerity. Janice Leonard and Eric Walker are both native Nova Scotians who graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Their exuberant regional art represents a shift away from the glacial conceptualism usually associated with the college. In the late 70's and early 80's when Leonard and Walker were formulating their approaches, NSCAD was in a state of intellectual turmoil. Many were beginning to view the college's predominantly avant-garde practice as an increasingly irrelevant parlour game.

Around the turn of the decade there existed at NSCAD a heady theoretical mix of Marx, Freud, feminism, structuralism and semiotics. Elements of all these ideas (consciously or not) have been integrated into the work of Leonard and Walker. Their work is politically aware. Leonard deals with childhood and cultural memories. Walker celebrates women such as historian Phyllis Blakeley and folklorist Helen Creighton. Language is important to both; works often refer to writing, Leonard quotes Longfellow's romantic poem Evengeline, Walker acknowledges Moses Coady's ground-breaking Masters of their Own Destiny. In almost every piece text is combined with image.

Walker's background is in design and photography. He began making painted collages after seeing Leonard's work. In contrast to Leonard's painterliness, Walker's edges are straight. Where she is expressionist-romantic, he is poetic-didactic. Walker's 35 works, which have the look of both folk art and modernist collage, fall into several thematic groups. The show's title, "Hidden Treasures", refers to under-appreciated heroes. Walker celebrates people like Coady and Creighton, important figures whose work had international significance, as well as ordinary folk such as a mother who walks her son to work in He was brave enough to work in the mine, but he wouldn't go through the grave yard alone.

In all of Walker's art there is an infectious sense of discovery of cultural identity. Initiated by J.J. Tompkins and Coady in the early 1930's, the Antigonish Movement pioneered techniques of adult education in which small study clubs generated economic group action. Tompkins taught industrial workers that, "ideas have hands and feet." Walker's pieces based on this theme are his most poetic: works like Every Little Hill Shall be a Torch and A Time to Destiny communicate the visionary nature of these leaders and the courage of the community in the face of economic adversity. Lovingly assembled, Walker's constructions abound with cleverness and inventive use of materials. Song for the Mira, based on the popular song about Cape Breton uses black asphalt roofing shingles to depict night sky.

Walker's representations of marine disasters are less successful. Here his whimsy reduces death to cartoon proportions. Only in the touching lament Three Died Here/The Crow Gulch Train Disaster, Sept. 13, 1966, with its still ticking watch and mangled metal and wires, suggest emotional depth.

Despite their formal weaknesses, Leonard and Walker are serious artists exploring largely untouched territory. In the hinterlands of Canadian culture, they are primitives of their kind.

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