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Robert Amos On Art: Exhibit an elegant Core Sample of UVic fine arts faculty’s work

As part of the celebration of the University of Victoria’s 50th anniversary, two exhibitions of work by fine arts faculty members and sessional instructors are planned.
Glenn Howarth's painting Gun Collector's Daughter.

As part of the celebration of the University of Victoria’s 50th anniversary, two exhibitions of work by fine arts faculty members and sessional instructors are planned. The first, on now, is titled Core Sample and presents the artists who taught there between the origin of the faculty in 1966 and 1986. This will be followed by an exhibit featuring subsequent and current staff.

The carefully chosen and installed exhibit brings a new elegance to the university’s downtown Legacy Gallery. The forthcoming catalogue by curator Caroline Riedel reveals an inside view of this important component of Victoria’s art culture. Best of all, for art historians and art fans alike, this is a visually stimulating show.

The faculty of fine arts originated in 1968 as an offshoot of the faculty of education, which was formed in 1966. From the outset, founders John Dobereiner and Don Harvey had a complicated time of it, trying to find a place for studio art within the university and determining an appropriate direction in the rapidly changing world of art. Some of the struggle is presented in the catalogue.

The exhibition makes a capsule summary of crucial periods in the evolution of art. I begin with Guns and Knives: The Gun Collector’s Daughter, a striking circular oil painting by Glenn Howarth. This is the most “painterly” of the works on show, owing something to the bleary realism of Francis Bacon.

Flemming Jorgensen’s drawings of Fort Rodd Hill are still recognizable as representations of a certain place, as is the large pastel Toward Gonzales Hill by Peter Kahn. Jim Gordaneer was briefly a sessional instructor and his small oil moves beyond these referential images to something more abstracted. Nearby is a coloured lithograph by Herbert Siebner showing two iconic forms in his late expressionist mode.

Don Harvey’s painting from this period is a muscular and colourful abstract expressionist essay. His painterly handwriting is superseded by the geometric hard edge of Dobereiner’s shaped canvas, playing with the visual illusions we used to call Op Art. A bold screen print of four patches of colour by George Tiessen hints at landscape, but might almost be Colour Field Abstraction. Douglas Morton also takes delight in juxtaposing brightly coloured shapes in a lively way that looks toward Pop Art’s inorganic forms.

Bill Featherstone was politically motivated — this was the late 1960s — and spoke his mind in screen prints which freely quoted Old Master paintings and architectural rendering. Peter Daglish is represented by a panel of coloured and cutout words and images rendered in pure colours of Plexiglas. Michael Sandle offers a dazzling screen print in red and black on reflective mylar film. These industrial materials and commercial processes were in their time very up-to-date.

Dennis Bowen spray-painted galaxies and outer-space motifs — suitable for “black light” viewing — with a geometric mandala affect. Standing alone is a haunting and profound light box by Pat Martin Bates. Pierced with thousands of pricks to let light shine through, each of her single autographic prints is a cosmic map inscribed with poetic incantation. Even in the university, mysticism was part of the early 1970s.

This was a pivotal moment in art. Gwen Curry, who had been there since the beginning, painted the heads of birds in a grid. This may recall Andy Warhol’s graphic approach, but she went further. By embossing their names on plates like tombstones, she made us aware of the fragility of our ecology. Conceptual art had arrived.

And in the early 1970s, Dana Atchley found a way to break out of the isolation of Victoria and connect to artists around the world. As the catalogue tells us, he asked 250 artists to send him 250 printed pages, which he then collated and returned to the senders — his first Space Atlas. Space, as he said, is the connector of all things.

With the arrival of Mowry Baden at UVic, everything changed. Baden is a proponent of “body art”: his sculptures are not so much to be looked at as to be engaged with in a physical way, calling to account our perceptions.

Soon he brought in Roland Brener, who eschewed his earlier formalism for “bricolage,” assembling and adapting found objects. Brener had a special interest in kinetics — making things move. His quirky and constantly evolving practice was far more interested in questions than answers. Together, these two post-modernists set the stage for the coming digital revolution.

Admission is free, and the texts on the wall make a fascinating history of a recent time. It’s good to see this stewardship of our art history going on.


Core Sample: University of Victoria Visual Arts Faculty 1966-1986, at the Legacy Gallery, 630 Yates St.,, until Oct. 26.