|Boy with Buoy, oil on canvas, 44"x40", Steven Rhude|
"The separate problems and opportunities of the individual regions of Canada have bred regional modes of thought, made all the more distinctive by the way in which artists and writers have picked out the unique features at the expense of features held in common."
J. Wrenford Watson 
"We are now at a crossroads, we have the impact of technological change that effects the way we produce and consume arts and culture. We have the world on our flat screens."
Alain Pineau 
Greg Curnoe was an unabashed regionalist at a time when formalism was the prevailing mode of established thought for art critics. For the critic, the artists life meant nothing in relation to his or her work. Subject matter was also erased from the orthodoxy of critical acceptance. A baseball was not a baseball, it was a sphere - therefore without a distinguishing identity. During the 1960's and 70's generally, the large American cities like New York held the rarely challenged mantle of creative origins. Artistically, it was American urban domination and Canada's aping of New York City by Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, that may have kindled a strong anti-American streak in Curnoe. It forced him to make the most of his own environment and the ethos of his beloved London, Ontario. A retrospective held at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2001 gave us a chance to witness first hand his love of "Stuff" and how he transformed it into art.
One particular example that stands out for me was Curnoe's love of hockey, and how one day he noticed some discarded hockey stick blades on the West Lions' ice pad. http://www.artsask.ca/en/collections/themes/regionalidentity/greg_curnoe/hockey_stick_blades
The resulting print reflects Curnoe's immediate talent and adroitness at seeing the value in a regional discard, and what symbolic weight it held for Curnoe in his oeuvre of regional artifacts.
Curnoe shared a similar affection for cycling and left us many fine portraits of his beloved Mariposa bicycle. It was also his passion for cycling which lead to his untimely death in 1992 and subsequently has left me wondering about his vision of regionalism. Notwithstanding a rich and diverse body of work, what would have evolved with his art and his commitment to reality, had he lived further on into the information technology revolution?
These are some of the challenges facing the regionalist artist who still looks to their immediate environs for inspiration and subject matter, yet are conscious of the collective noun regionalism and its implications. Much has changed since Curnoe's time. Rural out migration is serious and reflected in the big box store chains and the overall diminishment of small business in that once vital icon we call Canada's small town. On line shopping and the information highway have altered our consumer habits and the accessibility to the market place. Ideas can reach people with the click of a mouse. The very fact that, as a visual artist, I can connect with numerous people all over the globe while circumventing our traditional and established art channels (ie; art magazines, news papers that would normally have to acknowledge, then if desired, review my objectives) , is to say the least liberating.
Curnoe was deeply skeptical in his time that art could transcend borders, yet people believed it - it kept coming up, but Curnoe thought that it was convenient for American believers because it was "their art and culture which was international eg. Vietnam."
I wonder if Curnoe, were he alive, would have found the Ipad an interesting tool for conveying ideas about regional art or any art for that matter. After all, in his day he did start up his own art magazine and artist run gallery, not to mention was one of the founding members of Ontario's CARFAC. http://www.carfacontario.ca/~carfacon/about/carfac_turns_40
He was always looking for alternatives, but a utopianist he was not.
The fact is there is not really any centre anymore. The art world isn't centred in New York and there is no place I can think of in Canada where one could say art is centred. Judging from the art reviews in the Globe and Mail one might think Toronto is the centre of Canada's art world, but a monopoly on newspaper coverage can't account for the vibrancy of art scenes covered through alternative media - especially social media, as evident from St John's to Vancouver. We certainly can claim we are experiencing now an international nation of art, but it all seems to me to be equally fragmented as the idea of cultural identity is constantly revised. It has taken the power of information technology to make art a global phenomenon, yet there exists a symmetry with the countervailing power of regionalism. An example of this would be the use of on line learning by remote regions to sustain their art programs and general education in an era of declining enrolment and protectionist centralisation. If you can't beat them, join them - or at least use them.
What is inspiring is that where we once may have questioned whether art can transcend borders, we now know it can. But that can also be challenging, frightening, and have ramifications in the overall scheme of things.
The advocacy of art whether regional or national is now open to the free market vicissitudes and the presence of the Gap. The writing is on the wall for the Canadian Conference for the Arts ( National Arts Advocacy Group whose mandate is now to create a united voice for the arts in Canada), they have been unofficially told the federal government will eliminate seventy five percent of their funding. The main support for the arts is the middle class, and in Canada that philosophy and demographic is changing. So it's back to grass roots and a 15 city tour of Canada for Alain Pineau to rebuild the group.
So what does all this mean for a painter living in small town Nova Scotia. A region is not just something to be used (think of fish or oil), depleted or used up. Identity for any culture always relates to a continuum of other higher principles. So for a regionalist he/she must weigh the responsibilities of cultural identity against the changing forces influencing its growth, spiritually or economically. These things allow the painter for instance to feel the freedom to have their work be place related or orientated, and unencumbered by trends or the flavour of the day - yet watchful for the opportunities they may present. For the regionalist, to probe through their art, the history, people, geography and depth of place, is about all they can do if there is a sense of meaning to be found in regionalism today - its distinctive feature or mode of thought being the objective.
Back during the 1967 Centennial celebrations Greg Curnoe won a cake competition. On the cake he wrote: Canada, I Think I Love You - But I Wanna Know for Sure. Truer words were never spoken by a regionalist.
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
1- D. Reid and M. Teitlebaum (eds) 2001 Greg Curnoe, Life and Stuff, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, pg. 148
2- J. Wrenford Watson, Canadian Regionalism in Life and Letters, The Geographic Journal, Volume 131, No.1, March 1965
3- Alain Pineau, Executive Director, Canadian Conference for the Arts
4 - Sarah Milroy, Canadian Art Magazine, Dream of a Common Language, Summer 2000, Volume 17, No. 2