“I’m gonna get some land one of these days. A man without land is nothing.”
Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
The iconic, familiar nature of Richler’s statement from his fine novel is similar to the “iconic” familiarity of a Levine Flexhaug. Both are more complicated than a superficial reading of either would imply. Both are immediately recognisable to several generations of Canadians, providing shape to personal and public histories, and realities of “Canada”.
That utopic desire (lust, even) forms and deforms Duddy; and in the end it fails him as moral guidance, unsurpisingly. In this vein, the works of Flexhaug – which are finely kitsch in the Arthur Danto manner of evoking emotion over intellect, but with a darker turn on that which I’ll expand later on – invite consideration of Duddy’s grandfather, Simcha Kravitz, more so than Duddy himself. It is, after all, Simcha’s mantra that Duddy recites and enacts, with all the besmirched flaws that are attendant to any dream “made real.”
Equally disconcerting, it’s difficult, sometimes, to respect the contemporary Canadian art scene, as it also demonstrates repeatedly the dissonance between what’s promised and what’s presented.
Granted, I’m a gleeful apostate, arrogantly yelling “fraud” while I tighten my lion’s skin around my girth and everyone prays for my return to the desert (or bar). I’m sure I lack gravitas, as sometimes I’ll read other arts writers, and think ‘[he] talked very well, but he talked nonsense. He talked about art as though it were the most important thing in the world’ (Somerset Maugham). Perhaps I’m matching absurdity to absurdity, hoping they cancel each other, or, in exponential interaction, transcend each other.
The exhibition inspiring such spleeny introspection (both of myself and it, and the art world oeuvre that “we” all navigate like a fish through water, often unaware) is A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug. Curated by Nancy Tousley and Peter White, Vernacular originated at the Grand Prairie Art Gallery (AB). Rodman Hall is the second-to-last stop for this conspicuous – perhaps absurd – outtake from Canadian Art History.
The descriptor: “Vernacular offers the first overview of the extraordinary career of Levine Flexhaug (1918-1974), an itinerant painter who sold thousands of variations of essentially the same landscape painting in national parks, resorts, department stores and bars across western Canada from the late 1930s through the early 1960s….a Flexhaug image represents a Western icon, a silent unspoiled Eden that encapsulates the conventions of sublime landscape painting in a kind of painter’s shorthand, and offers a point of entry for consideration of significant critical questions ranging from issues of taste, originality versus repetition in art, the appeal of landscape and its iconography.”
Before examining Vernacular, another digression concerning art and the worlds it inhabits outside the gallery (especially when the art in question is “owned” literally, or emotionally, by many differing peoples).
Perhaps you saw the AGO exhibition featuring Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, The Idea of North. Less likely, perhaps you also endured the “review” of said exhibition in Canadian Art magazine. It committed the sin of assuming contemporary ethics and “morals” can be applied to a painter from a century earlier with an ignorance broadcasting more about the reviewers than issues regarding Harris’ art or era. It’s similar to damning Mark Twain for his language in Huckleberry Finn, comfortable in a “virtuous” bubble of censorious ahistorical shaming. (I’d add that Huck’s interior struggle, choosing to be a “sinner” rather than “return” the “stolen property” that is his friend Jim, is as incisive – if mirrored – a moral tale as Richler’s Kravitz…).
Harris’ actual paintings – and the historical factors therein, the period in which they and he lived – were irrelevant to CA’s “reviewers.” This gap between words and artworks also appears in the curatorial rhetoric around Vernacular. But the question is whether that’s as fatal an error as what the Canadian Art clique indulged in, or whether it’s a more positive evocation, like Wayne Morgan relating his very personal history with Levine’s work and world, in both his essay and at the talk he gave at Rodman.
Flexhaug’s work is less sublime (of grand beauty evoking wonder and admiration ) than kitsch (lowbrow, mass-produced art / design sampling popular / cultural icons). There’s no irony in its kitschiness: the curators generously dismiss the inherent art world degradation of using that term, but that’s (perhaps) of a similar projection as the CA take on Harris. The curatorial language and rhetoric may fade when confronted with the artworks, or simply fail in a form of deference to the physical works. Its arguable whether Levine could even draw – or paint, if we’re honest. I’m erring on the side of doubt: but we all know that in these glorious days of the post post modern age of anxiety, “art” is whatever the “artist” says it is (looking at you, Abramović).
There might be the odd inoffensive piece that’s then degraded through excessive repetition, with replications that in their multitude dilute any external pretence of quality. The three monochromatic birds appear in several ways, in many works. The elk / moose reappears, the bison does too, and the linear childishness of the eyes on the many versions of these “exotic” beasts is either laughable or pathetic.
It’s an odd show: bizarre in a mildly engaging way, where the overall effect is so much more than an individual banal work. Many walls are crammed. A dense clot of landscapes. I want to use the word “glut” over and over, just as Dr. Sharilyn Ingram, in speaking of Flexhaug, kept using the word “churn” to describe his proliferate practice.
The first wall you encounter as you move to the back spaces – so often used as an informal “title” wall that’s an introduction to an exhibition, an adjunct to it – is a flat blue (the “most loved colour”, according to Komar and Melamid – more on them, later) with a single Flexhaug displayed. It’s a rare moment of visual rest. All the other three rooms (and the side alcove) are salon style, with works so tightly packed together so they become one, a linear assemblage of dozens, or hundreds (literally).
Considering the glut (!) of the work, and that it either demands a long visit to attempt to break that barrier of excess, to seek – if you even want to do so – the rare markers of individuality in this passel of images, this initial piece is a calm anchor.
In fact, it might be a worthy consideration that this wall could rotate with a new piece, every day, every week, allowing each work the spotlight as a singular creation, and standing or failing on its own. The viewer might feel less shell shocked than they do, once they walk down the steps into the exhibition proper.
A Sublimer Vernacular, as presented at Rodman Hall is – this is flippant but not inexact – like Canadian landscape on steroids. It’s the Group of Seven’s bastard cousin (like calendar aesthetics), mass produced and mass displayed, breathtaking (inspiring awe?) in quantity, if not quality, as there are nearly 500 works.
Different gallery spaces at Rodman do have distinctions: one room is earlier works, one room is later works, so the works that are a little more unique are in these rooms (tondos in one room, or others that have an atmospheric quality that is too subtle for a Flexhaug. The room of later works has several larger pieces that are more narrative, with figures, even – humanity never pollutes a Levine, except by implication, with the gaze or other evidence, like cabins. There’s a lightness of tone and hand that is not the standard (scripted?) Flexhaug, but give hints of the rough edges of his formation, and later the slippage of his “style” with age).
But if this artist is so important, as the curators posit, then shouldn’t the presentation proffer more possibility to attend the artworks? Garner a bit more respectful installation that doesn’t just overwhelm en masse and thus suggest a need to hide a poverty of “talent”?
Granted, the dense excess does offer a kind of sublime, a version of “awe”. But I’m unconvinced that Vernacular isn’t just poorly executed simulacra that is so conceptually devoid that it not only invites but demands we supply meaning rather than face the abysmal failure of both the individual works and an art world that seems to offer this “snake oil.”
Vernacular forces meaning from the viewer as Levine is silent (several people have referred to the artist as the “immortal” Flexhaug: unchanging, static, frozen, like a vampire that bleeds life from others, and is thus animated by others? Utopias are immortal, and thus stagnant, dead spaces – and there’s rarely a person in his landscapes…).
The installation suggests the whole is more than the sum of the parts. All Flexhaug works are any Flexhaug works. Though there’s minor distinctions (the web site has categories that delineate these), there’s rarely any doubt about a work being a Flexhaug, or falling outside the canon.
Flexaug is an archetype – or stereotype – of landscape whose familiarity “breeds contempt” (the talk that Sharilyn Ingram and Wayne Morgan gave about Levine,“Making Art for the Market: Flexhaug in Context”, had the joking subtitle of “my Aunt had one of those.”) That says something about Canada, moving towards our 150th anniversary, with comforting “vernaculars.” Mordecai Richler alluded to this: “If Canada had a soul (a doubtful proposition, Moses thought) then it wasn’t to be found in Batoche or the Plains of Abraham or Fort Walsh or Charlottetown or Parliament Hill, but in The Caboose and thousands of bars like it that knit the country together from Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, to the far side of Vancouver Island.” Flexhaug’s work often hung in places like that, I’ve been told, by several collectors.
One of Richler’s characters also acidly asserts that “not all neglected artists are unjustly neglected.” Apply that as you will: perhaps I share that sentiment still, here, or I’ve begun to use Flexhaug as others have – like the curators – to foster an idea and an investment of my own….
But in approaching this exhibition, a certain cynicism is appropriate: Levine is neither of high quality, nor is he an artist whose lack of “sublime” aesthetics is fully balanced (or justified) by the historical or social relevance of his works in a larger socioeconomic theatre (Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas comes to mind – a literally revolting work that has much to add to a larger conversation about feminism, fashion and consumption).
On a certain level, Levine fills me with despair. I visited a Sublime Vernacular prepared to hate the show, rife with pregnant contempt. I left questioning a variety of things, but not the ability of these works to speak contemporaneously (even if it’s ventriloquism, just the superimposed voices from the curators – or myself, or others bringing their own narratives to fill the vacuum here, and alien to Levine’s intent. Assuming, of course, that he had one, and wasn’t just interested in selling you a cheap facsimile of an unattainable dream, and more power to him….but his work is still the necessary and evocative catalyst for these conversations).
Since it first occurred to me, and my liberal sharing of it with many who’ve seen the show (the Rodman version or others), the Duddy Kravitz / Simcha arc of how a “man without land is nothing” has only become more fixed for me in interpreting Sublime. I truly believe that Flexhaug could have painted a picture that Simcha hung in the back of a cramped shop in the urban dirt that was St. Urbain’s Street. That Eastern ghetto matches the Prairie dust bowl and “Dirty Thirties” that shaped the teenage Levine: another echo of Kravitz, who “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.”(Kravitz)
These Eden-esque landscapes of Levine evoke an unattainable paradise and play upon the manner in which we dream of a site, a place entirely fantastic that has little to physically (literally) do with the geography, or the lived reality or experience, of our world.
In further conversation with a variety of individuals, how these “magic realist” works fit (or don’t) within a region dominated by the legend and history of Niagara Falls came up repeatedly. To continue to sample from Canadian writers, when I think of Niagara Falls, I think less of how I grew up here, visiting as a child, then of the dysfunctional familial dynamic of Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angels. The possibly senile, possibly Sibyllic / seeress mother in that novel either drops or throws her child to his death on a trip to the Falls – the only boy child, after three girls whose wars with their alcoholic and angry father comes to a close when he himself climbs over the railing and plunges to his death, or destiny, in the concluding scene at the cataracts.
The works are singularly unpromising: but their repeated failure in the aesthetic field is perhaps fitting, as they evoke failed dreams of a cottage, a place of one’s own, a dream of a retreat and a space of beauty away from our everyday drudge and destitution.
This is base work that appeals to base instincts, but that doesn’t invalidate those sentiments.
I’ll end here by returning to the darker side of Richler’s words, the knowing mockery of Duddy’s idol, Jerry Dingleman, the “Boy Wonder” of Duddy’s grandfather: “But if you had you’d know about these old men. Sitting in their dark cramped ghetto corners they wrote the most mawkish, school-girlish stuff about green fields and sky. Terrible poetry, but touching when you consider the circumstances under which it was written. Your grandfather [Simcha] doesn’t want any land. He wouldn’t know what to with it….Now you’ve frightened him. They want to die in the same suffocating way they lived, bent over a cutting table or a freezing junk yard shack.”
We’ll never have it. Do we even really want it? The pursuit of it has offered more difficulty, as so many attempts to find or create a utopia usually ends badly for those involved. Or do we just want the dream, the painting on the wall?
A final idea from the presentation by Ingram and Morgan was Komar and Melamid’s mid 1990s project about the “most wanted painting” that resulted in images that share more than a passing resemblance to Levine. A reviewer acerbically summed up that project thusly: “I don’t read this as a wicked skewering of bourgeois taste. I see it demonstrating the catastrophic failure of the establishment.”
Our taste fails, as our dreams of Eden do the same: or, worse yet, they were never even real, in the first place. Lack of authenticity only accentuated by excess: like a room full of works that leave you empty and despairing.
A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug is on display at Rodman Hall until the 12th of March.
The images in this piece are Untitled (Mountain lake with deer) (detail), nd. (Collection of Wayne Morgan and Sharilyn J. Ingram) and Untitled (Mountain lake with deer and three birds), nd. (Collection of Greg and Debbie McIntyre, Regina, Saskatchewan).