Banner Image: "Mariposa 10 Speed No. 2", 1973, Watercolour over graphite on wove paper
Greg Curnoe (1936-1992) was born in London, Ontario, where he continued to work and live all of his life. The setting of London, Ontario was highly integral to his practice, so much so that he became one of the driving forces of regionalist art and energy within the city. Thematic influences in his work were the result of a highly autobiographical approach combined with an appreciation of the Dadaist movement, steeped in a profound Canadian nationalism. Recurring images that appeared as a result of these themes include portraits of himself, his wife Sheila, his children, Owen, Galen and Zoe, references to other family and friends, landscapes, stamps, bicycles, and maps, rendered in bright colours and eclectic assemblage so characteristic of his work.
His particular brand of nationalism (and regionalism) was further explored in his later works collected in both Deeds/Abstracts (1995) and Deeds/Nations (1996). In these posthumous publications Greg fervently sought out to chronicle the history of his house at 38 Weston Street, making clear the pre-colonial roots of London, which he successfully managed to date back to 8600 BCE. The 800-odd pages of notes illustrate the great importance of text and writing in his work, but it also expresses his genuine commitment to regionalism - and all peoples (past and present) that lived in this region.
Greg Curnoe was involved as one of the founding board members at many of the first artist-run centres in Canada - Region Gallery from 1961 - 1963, the 20/20 Gallery from 1966 - 1971 and the Forest City Gallery in London, Ontario from 1973 - present. These spaces became exemplars for alternative art spaces in Canada, and influenced granting bodies like the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts to fund more experimental projects. Equitable compensation for artists and the reproduction of their works was also extremely important to Greg, who worked closely with London artists Jack Chambers, Tony Urquhart and Kim Ondaatje in the organization of CAR (Canadian Artists’ Representation) in 1968. CAR continues to advocate for artists’ rights today, as a nationally recognized body known as CARFAC.
Greg Curnoe achieved some of the highest honours as a Canadian artist. In 1969, his work was chosen for the 10th Sao Paolo Biennial (Bienal X). In 1976, he was chosen to represent Canada in the 37th Venice Biennale. This landmark inclusion was coupled with many trips to Europe, which challenged and coalesced with his ideas on regionalism. He also travelled to London, UK and Paris to perform on drums and kazoo as the “Nihilist Spasm Band”, which he founded in 1965 with fellow London artists and musicians. Galleries across Canada purchased his work for their collections, including that of The Art Gallery of Ontario, The National Gallery of Canada, The Vancouver Art Gallery and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 1981, he had a touring exhibition entitled Greg Curnoe: Rétrospective/Retrospective that travelled to the National Gallery and The Art Gallery of Ontario and subsequently transformed the nature of his relationship to his work for years to come.
His commitment to the local art scene of London, Ontario meant that his engagement and support of the Embassy Cultural House was not coincidental or by chance. Greg participated in programs at the ECH on many occasions, including Drawings in 1985, The Body & Society in 1988, and Silent Auction: A Benefit Exhibition in 1989.
In 1992, the sudden death of Greg Curnoe had a huge impact on the cultural world of Canada. He was hit by the driver of a truck and killed, while cycling with his London Centennial Wheelers bicycle club on a routine Saturday morning ride. The board of the Embassy Cultural House planted a tree in memory of Greg Curnoe along the Deshkan Ziibi (Antler River) in Harris Park, in London, Ontario. A tunnel near Greenway Park where the cycling path meets Wharncliffe Road in London is named in his honour.