Manitoba Art Monographs by Kenneth James Hughes

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A review of Kenneth James Hughes, Manitoba Art Monographs, Manitoba Department of Cultural Affairs and Historical Resources, [1982], 358 pp. Limited distribution.

A monograph is commonly defined as a treatise on a particular subject. Such studies are always published individually. In this case a collection of six monographs each dealing with a Manitohan artist has been assembled under one title; the artists are Kelly Clark (b. 1935), E.J. (Ted) Howorth (b.1943), Bill Lobchuk (b.1942), Don Proch (b.1944), Tony Tascona (b.1926) and Esther Warkov (b.1941).

Mr. Hughes' introduction to the book reveals that he set himself three goals: "to offer an account of the who? what? when? where? why?" of Manitoban art; "to be deliberately controversial so as to open up a continuing and perhaps fruitful discussion," and "to demonstrate through the physical simplicity of this book that we do not have to make wildly expensive and glossy art books to talk about art."

Most importantly Mr. Hughes' concern with Manitoban art has to do with the social basis from which it sprang; he sees it as a former frontier society which is slowly awakening to its own unique character.

Why this particular selection of artists? Obviously because they were felt to be not only significant practitioners of their art but also artists who are producing "a solid foundation for a viable Manitoba visual art culture." In the author's opinion this means they all have given expression to Manitoban ways of seeing. "The ways of seeing are the product of the specific quality of Manitoba rural and urban experience, the Manitoba landscape (or landscapes) and light, along with socio-historical and different ethnic factors peculiar to this place."

Moreover it appears that all six individuals belong to the first group of Manitoba-born artists who have fought neglect and poverty, as well as the lure of larger art centres, in order to stay in their province and attempt careers as full-time professional artists.

On a more prosaic level, the six artists were also chosen because, as the author acknowledges, new ventures have to begin somewhere and this one began with the art and artists he initially knew something about. That is fair enough. Being of an open frame of mind the writer promises to deal with other artists in the future, "but in no specific order of precedence or hierarchy because while [he expects] artistic excellence, [he does] not believe in star systems or hierarchies."

Such honest explanations should discourage any quibbling over the initial choice of artists. Unquestionably all six are worthy of treatment; however, the inclusion of Tony Tascona does jar slightly with the publication format here employed. The only artist amongst the six to work in the abstract mode, his presence undermines the unity required of single books.

The author teaches English literature at the University of Manitoba. As a consequence his approach throughout the book is a methodical and literary one. With great thoroughness he proceeds to dissect and analyze each artist's life experiences, from birth onwards, seeking at every step clues to the understanding of all phases of the artists' output. To support and to elucidate his findings, Mr. Hughes delves into his notes and library much as a conductor before his orchestra. And so does he swing from the Dialogues of Plato, and Gassendi's Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri (Paris, 1658) to Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition (New York, 1959) and Nicos Hadjinicolaou's Art History and Class Structure (trans. London, 1978).

Key words are looked up in the dictionary. So it is that Bill Lobchuk, whose work consists mainly of landscapes, finds himself thrown into the thick of deliberations on 17th century landscapes, the English word being compared to the Dutch landshap and the Danish landskab which are, according to Webster's, the "equivalent of land-shape." Well, well. How about that.

I must stress that Mr. Hughes always starts his inquiry with the art work and continuously refers to it. But it does seem that his scholarly method at times puts the art at a disadvantage in that suddenly it must live up to all those erudite sources and quotations. Esther Warkov's work best endures the test, possibly because I am generally convinced by her multi-faceted, multi-layered imagery. For some of the other artists, I occasionally see their works as puppies bravely trying to catch up with their fast-walking master.

One case of over-analysis is Kelly Clark's The Puzzle. The author waxes at length on its meaning and implications. At long last we are told the work is democratic; that is, political, because it invites everyone to decipher it. Furthermore, its resolution is that it has none, making of the work a metaphor of life itself. My objection rests in that similar comments could be made about any art work of an enigmatic nature. What we took to be insights into a particular work of art somehow transform themselves into generalizations with the result that the actual work discussed loses some of its distinction.

Exhaustive analysis also points out the vulnerability of art produced by artists who are not amongst any century's few geniuses. I am alluding to the gap that exists between the intentions of the artist — any artist of the more common ilk — and his/her realizations. To expound at too great a length on artist's intentions can only underline their weaknesses. And it need not be done.

Mr. Hughes' fascination with the artists' childhood experiences can also at times cause the reader some embarrassment. Although biographical information is often included in discussions of artists' and writers' works, I would rather the individuals be dead before we give too much importance to the very private and fragile aspects of their lives. We should give time a chance to determine the true significance of those experiences.

I wouldn't want my comments to lead anyone to the conclusion that I only find fault with the book. On the contrary, Manitoba Art Monographs is a most welcome addition to literature on Manitoban art. Heaven knows the species is none too abundant and I wouldn't want to discourage any effort in its direction.

Certainly Ken Hughes is guided throughout by his own point of view. A principal and quite interesting leitmotiv is the notion of "prairie populism" (as expressed in the 1920's novels of Martha Ostenso, Frederic Philip Grove and Robert Stead), the appropriation of the land (nature) and the passage to a man-made city (culture). Inasmuch as the author's concerns are political, comparisons could be made with the Marxist writings of art historian Barry Lord. Mr. Hughes comes out the more flexible, since he takes into account the totality of the person. It would seem that any good artist who has lived and worked in Manitoba could be the subject of his study.

As already said, the author does not believe in hierarchy. Even the phases of the artists' production are not judged for their evolutionary quality, but merely as various parts of the artists' life. This too is refreshing. Too often art commentators limit themselves to only the most recent work by an artist, as if anything that has dried should immediately be forgotten. Living artists are then always forced to do bigger, better work, year by year, totally ignoring the fact that artists now deceased did not always enjoy purely ascending careers. Some were silent for extended periods of their lives; others, like Matisse, reverted continuously to past themes and manners.

In breaking away from the tyranny of recent criticism, Mr. Hughes can then offer his readers a better understanding of the artists' work and a deeper appreciation of their condition as humans living in this time and in prairie space. Kelly Clark's tormented, Ensor-like canvasses of the 1960's are one example of an artist's early production which still deserves attention. We are all the richer for having been made aware of it.

All of Mr. Hughes' writing, and especially this book, are strongly motivated by the necessity to dispel ignorance about Manitoban art. He wants to show that art produced in Manitoba can be valid simply for being what it is. Too many people involved with the art of the province feel obliged to judge it, not by its own characteristics, but by its similarity with the art of larger art centres. They fail to see that all art attains vitality only when it achieves some degree of uniqueness.

A case in point is Don Proch's Field, his entry in the Pluralities exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (July 1980). Mr., Hughes demonstrates that critics did not see particularity as a metaphor for the oppressive action of bureaucracies on man and nature. Instead it was attacked for not repeating works done by other artists to which, in the critics' eyes, it appeared stylistically related.

As the author himself explains, writing about art is not a part of his regular occupation and so he should be congratulated for his generous and persistent interest in the subject. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Manitoba, I should add that Mr. Hughes has carved out for himself an enviable position as a respected contributor to Manitoba's art and culture, through his other writings on Manitoban artists, his past chairmanship of the Manitoba Arts Council and his establishment of a permanent collection of Manitoban art in St. John's College at the University of Manitoba.

The man is no neophyte. He also has the merit of having researched his book without any financial assistance. I suspect it isn't because he wanted it thus.

Hopefully the author will pursue his inquiry into Manitoban art and his unrelenting promotion of it, and hopefully too others will follow suit, each abiding by his/her own point of view and set of criteria. And hopefully because of it all Manitobans will take pride in their artists and soon take active steps to support their endeavours.

A major first step would be for the Manitoba Government to properly publish Manitoba Art Monographs. I suggest real monographs, such as the National Gallery's series on Canadian Artists. The present format, photocopies of the author's typed manuscript under a cheap and unadorned cover, though distributed to public libraries in the province, can only have a limited impact. The good word must reach a wider public and that means a wide commercial distribution in and outside of Manitoba. Of course, inexpensive books would be desirable, but I think that colour photographs and some glossiness are necessary. Colour sensibilities vary from one artist to the other and so there has to be some indication of it. And let's face it, we are all attracted by the attractive. That goes for art books too.

© Arts Manitoba Publications Inc., 1983

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