Every few years, the College Galleries on the University of Saskatchewan campus mount an exhibition of the paintings of A. F. L. Kenderdine. If you’re unacquainted with his work, you surely know its ilk: muddy, somewhat bland colours, “idealized” images of nature, and a suitability for the most conservative of hotel rooms. In the larger narrative of painting in Canada, this is the antithesis of some of the daring (for its time – remember, we’re talking nearly a century ago) work of the Group of Seven, despite being decades later.
Frankly, I see Kenderdine in the same framework I see Perehudoff, as regionalist mimesis, a purely derivitive action. Perhaps I’m also being harsh about the necessity for artists to look beyond their immediate environment. This is welcome residue from my conversation with David Thauberger about “prairie painting”, perhaps.
In light of that, what Leah Taylor, curator of GUS at the Kenderdine space, has done is a refreshing, if unconventional, fracture.
But I must add a stipulation: I spent significant time with the U of S collection. When in conversation with those of a shared experience, all were intrigued at Taylor “pulling back the curtain” and offering a different view of Kenderdine the man – or really, any view of the man at all.
Like any archival exhibition that exposes aspects of an artist whom we assume we’re already “familiar” with, it’s challenging. Taylor presents for us the “repository of documents and ephemera from the family archive of Augustus F. L. Kenderdine, known to many as Gus. Looking beyond the canonical legacy of Kenderdine the painter, this exhibition offers a glimpse into the private life of Gus. This archive is comprised of materials that range from journals, correspondence, letters, photographs, to travel souvenirs and pipes”.
On a purely superficial level, I’m reminded of Troy Gronsdahl’s exhibition More of the Same at the Frances Morrison Library space last year. That was charming in its sparseness and the delicacy and execution of the objects, and was utterly meaningless to you if you knew nothing of the subject.
This isn’t a criticism (as it can allow for a fluidity of interpretation by the viewer), but a statement of my position as a critic whom sees art as a conversation, not an empty lecture. Frankly, I applauded one of my critical brethren recently when she dismissed the apparent need to invest more effort in the work than perhaps the “artist” had…heresy, I know. I also recently butted heads with an “artist” who bleated I should write about the “art” and nothing else, and they’re a Queer performer who, once separated from the ideolgoy at play, is as meaningful as an echo…Kenderdine’s colours aren’t the only “muddy” things, here.
But with GUS, I feel like I’m getting unprecedented access, private and intimate. It’s allowing me to round out some edges, so I see Kenderdine as a person, and see the ways in which he manifests in his works, and maybe why and where they’ve succeeded, or failed…
The tiny photographs that are framed on the wall, or in the display cases, carry that notion that Timothy Findley espoused in his Governer General award winning work, The Wars : “…sometime, someone will forget himself and say too much or else the corner of a picture will reveal the whole.” These images imply they hold something that we can’t dare miss, and demand our attention.
There’s none of Kenderdine’s paintings with their elaborate, “art historical” frames (literal or metaphorical). There is a portrait by Nickolas de Grandmaison, highly realist in the charcoal and direct gaze of the subject. The clean white – almost antiseptic – space has several vitrines that are organized under the following overlapping umbrellas: family, travel, the war, and life in Saskatchewan. More words from Taylor: “The Kenderdine archive reveals a particular history embedded within a social, political and cultural context, and Gus’ positioning within that historical framework”.
She cites Michel Foucault, one of the great thinkers of Post Structuralism. He’s one of the main architects of the notion of doubt that so necessarily undermines the brash, and often erroneous assertions of Modernism. His work on societal attitudes about insanity, for example, still speak very clearly to how meaning is a mercurial construction. After all, how long has it been since being queer hasn’t been smeared as a mental illness, and yet sociopathic greed is considered “responsible”?
Foucault (as cited by Taylor) says of the archive that it “emerges in fragments, regions and levels, more fully, no doubt, and with great sharpness, the greater the time that separates us from it: at most, were it not for the rarity of the documents, the greater chronological distance would be necessary to analyze it.”
Its also very humanizing: a funny sketch of Hitler (with the amusing scrawled comment of not being done from “the model”), his chain mail epaullettes, some correspondance and other detritus fill the cases. The few works on the walls seem almost dwarfed by the frames – like something minor, left in a drawer, forgotten, but now given pride of place, but not really sure of its role within that discourse. These are remnants and mementos of travel, and of a life lived (that seem deeper than his paintings, bluntly).
But I don’t really think this is “Art”. Years ago, a fellow student spoke of how she felt that much post modernist artwork was really research, at its core. There is a mirroring, one might say, between Modernism’s obsession with an external “purity” or “real”, as though we’re all in Plato’s Cave, and post modernism’s obsession with how all structures are contextual and limiting, and are only “factual” on a personal, fluid level.
Or Kenderdine attempted to paint the “perfect”l landscape of Saskatchewan, and this exhibition splits apart that ideal with a personal narrative that belies any notion of “universality.” And post modernism is a critique that relies upon that which it splinters, as it wouldn’t exist without its bane (I almost miss all the rusted Doug Benthams that used to infest this city that has vanished of late. But I don’t).
This is a portrait of A.F.L. Kenderdine, as surely as any image he might have painted while looking at himself in mirror and the image by Grandmaison can be seen as only the most obvious or literal version. Or, perhaps more exactly, it’s a portrait of Gus, without all the art historical and institutional barriers to mount, or filtering our understanding.