Kurelek mystery lands in Yorkville

Yet, one mystery has to do with an untraceable painting by William Kurelek whose work is showing at the gallery. The other mystery is Kurelek himself, the Alberta-born artist who died in 1977 at only 50 years old.

Solutions to both intrigues may have to wait for William Kurelek: The Messenger, the blockbuster retrospective slated for autumn 2011 and for 2012. Organized by the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the exhibition will frame the artist’s prairie memory paintings in the context of the strikingly dissimilar work he produced in the mid-‘50s when he was in psychiatric care in England.

Already as word of the retrospective of possibly up to 90 Kureleks gets out, many private collectors are coming forth to make their Kurelek paintings available. “We’ve already discovered all kinds of work that has been referred to but not seen,” says Tobi Bruce, senior curator of Canadian historical art at the Hamilton Art Gallery. “He was so fascinating and so misunderstood.”

In the meantime, the Loch family — David, at the Winnipeg gallery, son Ian, who runs the Calgary operation and son Alan at the Toronto gallery — are likewise hoping their exhibition of Kurelek’s well-known illustrations for W. O Mitchell’s classic, Who Has Seen The Wind will encourage at least one unknown collector to come forward with their “missing” painting. (Already shown in Calgary, the exhibition is in Winnipeg June 10-19.)

The original Kurelek suite of work is on public display for the first time following its recent sale of the 40 pieces — eight paintings and 32 pen and ink drawings — to a private collector. The illustrations were part of the second edition of Who Has Seen the Wind published in 1976 with two different covers. One cover, itself titled “Who Has Seen The Wind,” became part of the “complete” set sold by Loch Gallery to the anonymous buyer. The painting for the second cover, “Harvest Train in Manitoba” was not part of the set “because we have no idea where the original painting is or who has it,” says Alan Loch.

Despite Kurelek’s many demons — economic, psychiatric and spiritual — he produced so prodigiously, with estimates of around 2,000 works, that no one knows where all the work is. “He basically worked himself to death,” say David Tuck of the Wynick/Tuck Gallery who only recently started representing the Kurelek estate at the behest of Av Isaacs, the artist’s earlier dealer.

As a companion show to the Kurelek, Sheila McGraw’s sugary illustrations for Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever — themselves sold some five years back to a private collector — are placed in the gallery’s back space.

To my eye there’s little resonance between the two groups of work even if both drill deep down into our attitudes about Canadian Identity, with Kurelek’s frostbitten scene of a lone wolf howling at the glimmering moon during a brutally cold prairie winter or one of McGraw’s chubby tykes unspooling toilet paper in sunny middle-class bathrooms.

McGraw’s illustrations — why do they always remind me of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse comic strip? — don’t begin to plumb that heart-falling emotional spiral engendered by Munsch’s haunting trope on William Wordsworth’s the-child-is-father-to-the-man theme.

The gap between McGraw’s work and the urgent rhythm of Munsch’s writing feels all the greater since the author’s recent newsmaking revelations about his struggles with addiction and depression, outlined on his “Note to Parents” on his website. I imagine that original audience for Love You Forever was the author himself trying to chase away the blues.

Whereas Kurelek’s spindly scenes of chiseled figures overwhelmed by endless skies are indelibly matched to the Mitchell book, first published in 1947, which begins with the stark reminder: “Here was the least common denominator of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky — Saskatchewan prairie.”

David Loch paid $15,000 for his first Kurelek, “The Bachelor” not long after he first opened his Winnipeg gallery in 1972 following his move to the city in 1967. (“The Bachelor,” part of the Thomson collection, is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.)

Since then prices for work by the artist goes have soared. In 2007, Sotheby’s sold Kurelek’s “Manitoba Mountain” (1971), a mixed media work on board for $336,000 (premium included), more than $230,000 higher than the original estimate.

“So I would be very interesting in acquiring the (“Harvest Train in Manitoba”) for the collection,” says David Loch. “Kurelek himself was always desperate for money. You read his letters — they’re in the Thomson collection — and you’ll weep at this desperation.”

As often as not Kurelek made this desperation visible even in the Who Has Seen The Wind suite where one painting shows a little boy huddled up and barely visible in a mountainous stack of hay, as the painter himself must have done while hiding from his tyrannical father — another mystery needing to be fully explained.

William Kurelek’s illustrations for Who Has Seen The Wind and Sheila McGraw’s illustrations for Love You Forever are at Loch Gallery, 16 Hazelton Ave. through to Saturday.

Peter Goddard is a Toronto freelance writer.


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