About the Exhibition
David Thauberger: Road Trips & Other Diversions provides the first comprehensive overview of this remarkable artist with six essays (in English and French) and approximately 100 full-colour reproductions. The book is designed by Hartman Design Studio Inc. and is accompanied by the 28-minute documentary, The Vernacular Man, on DVD produced by Novina Motion Pictures Inc. Co-published by the Mendel Art Gallery and MacKenzie Art Gallery.
208 pp 10.25 x 9.25 in. hardcover
Throughout his career David Thauberger has sustained a tireless commitment to a productive studio practice and an impressive drive to keep his work fresh. His early work is marked by restless experimentation and significant aesthetic variation, his mid-career shows a sustained and systematic exploration of the iconic image, while his more recent work is driven by a quiet logic, signalling shifts that are more subtle, the product of simplification over time. Wrestling with modernism, image building, nostalgia, popular culture, place and originality in his work, Thauberger’s hand is distinct—not expressive, but intimate nonetheless. His perseverance and ambition are rooted in his early artistic years.
The first dozen years of Thauberger’s life as an artist looks like a dream-come-true: meeting his mentor, the California ceramist David Gilhooly at the University of Regina; Canada Council grants to attend graduate school at California State University, Sacramento and the University of Montana; a solo touring show in the Maritimes while he was still a graduate student; a solo show at Regina’s Dunlop Art Gallery that toured eight venues in Saskatchewan and Alberta; inclusion in a group exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, resulting in national exposure and representation by some of Canada’s leading gallerists. But the attention did not overshadow or overwhelm him. He continued to question and explore not only his own art practice but also the wider art world.
The School of One
When asked if he felt aligned with any particular movement or school of thought, Thauberger jokingly replied that he was in a “school of one!” Although this response might seem arrogant, it is more symptomatic of what was happening in the art world when Thauberger developed as an artist. No one really talks about post-modernism these days, but he thrived in the brash openness and permissive aesthetic ‘pluralism’ of the 1970s and ‘80s. Early in Thauberger’s career, Lea Collins at the Saskatchewan Arts Board said to him, “Painting doesn’t look like that!” This is exactly the kind of response that encouraged Thauberger to keep painting; it signalled to him that by doing something that was against the grain, he must have been doing something right.
While still working in ceramics, Thauberger began painting small watercolours on the kitchen table in the evenings, often utilizing his own ceramic work, such as Rhino Soup (1972; cat. 2), as still lifes. Teaching himself to paint, Thauberger emulated artists whose work he had seen in exhibitions while at graduate school. In these works on paper, his deft, delicate line and careful detail are obvious. In his first patterned work, Moths (1972; cat. 3), Thauberger utilized a stencilled moth against a schematic landscape backdrop. Within a couple of years, he embarked on a series of medium-size acrylic paintings of repeated elements, such as birds, fish, rabbits, and other animals that were equipped with their own patterns. The pattern works were largely formalist: about understanding the figure-ground relationship, exploring shifts in scale and the way that the ground could alter how the image was read. Although he never attempted to master the human figure, watercolours, such as the two 1974 self-portraits Shirt Study (cat. 5) and Shirt Study II (cat. 6), demonstrate Thauberger’s facility with the medium, as well as how he was thinking about different ways to use pattern as a compositional element.
He very quickly absorbed influences and worked through the derivative kinks to develop his own approach. While still at the University of Regina, Thauberger saw an exhibition he has not forgotten. It was 1969 when the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery hosted New York 13, an impressive exhibition organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, featuring 13 leading artists from New York City. One work that impressed him was Ellsworth Kelly’s triptych Red Yellow Blue (1966). Made several years later, Thauberger’s 1977 Scarlet Tanagers (cat. 9), Gold Finches (cat. 10), and Blue Birds (cat. 11) demonstrate part of the gestation process that shapes how he makes art. Mimicking Kelly’s bold monochromatic ground, he completely disrupts Kelly’s concern for mass by accentuating the surface with patterns of birds. It is both an homage to Kelly and a reconsideration of his work. Thauberger was determined to challenge the dominance of Modernism’s enthusiasm for abstraction and purity, and his choice of animal figures undermined its serious tone of spiritual angst.
It is easy nowadays to minimize the modernist legacy of Clement Greenberg’s criticism and influence on artists across North America. For the generation of artists before Thauberger, Greenberg’s impact was significant, and in the Prairies he remains a mythic and polemical figure. The lessons Thauberger took from Greenberg are the problems of painting: an emphasis on composition, surface and the materiality of paint. The flattening out of the picture plane in much of his work is a distillation of abstraction, along with the real presence of false front buildings and strong sunlight. For all its luridness and out-of-the-tube banality, his use of colour is sensuous and well considered. Those early paintings and prints—velvet bunnies, fun fur frames, leopard prints—were part of an existing language that played with Modernism’s focus on surfaces but shifted to one of tactile pleasure. Doubtlessly connecting to the physicality of working with clay, Thauberger brought attention to surface qualities, feeling that viewers should want to rub surfaces—hence the use of velvet and flocking. Rejecting Modernism’s insistence on purity of medium, he had already been incorporating non-art materials in his ceramics by adding commercially produced knick-knacks and green ware marketed to hobbyists, in, for example, A Volkswagen Piece (1974; cat. 78) and Oh How the Money Rolls In (1973; cat. 76). Of course, clay was considered low art to begin with.
Instead of a force of nature, Thauberger chose to be a filter of culture, thus aligning himself with a pop art sensibility. He suppressed the mastery of paint by adopting techniques that he claimed took “the wrist” out of painting, rejecting the notion of the psyche of the artist pouring forth through the application of paint. Moreover, this anti-gestural approach meant that his work is not laboured, but efficiently executed; consideration goes into the overall impact of the image without fussing over the details. He has used stencils, combs, toothbrushes, Letraset, glitter, stamps, objects, airbrush and masking tape. Consider Thauberger’s work in the context of the Pattern and Decoration movement in the 1970s, associated primarily with women artists, who looked to craft and traditional decoration, and also of Frank Stella, who looked to the pictorial issues of abstraction. On one hand is an inherently politicized context for P&D’s production and reception, and on the other a so-called purely aesthetic continuation of the modernist project. Thauberger’s paintings operate amongst these competitive conditions.
In addition to navigating the art world zeitgeist, Thauberger purposefully positioned himself within the particular context of Canadian Prairie art history: landscape tradition, depression-era regionalism, influx of international attitudes from the New York school, California Funk and Chicago Imagists, and Saskatchewan folk art. He spent those early years working out various alternatives of how to be a Prairie artist and how to stand out nationally—he received plenty of accolades for his ceramic work and again for the pattern paintings, enough that he could have continued longer in either vein. As Nancy Tousley explains: “But what he lacked for these experiments in content and form was a cohesive conceptual framework that would allow him to get past the surface of things to what mattered to him.”
The issue of margins is critical to understanding Thauberger’s work. Setting up a studio outside of the major centres is still a risk for serious artists, both in terms of building an audience and being part of a community. Yet, as Northrop Frye argued, a small community can result in a broad audience for the artist who confronts where he is instead of pretending to be elsewhere. Regina’s art scene has been that community for Thauberger, and within those margins he found yet another margin. His admiration for folk art and resulting expertise are well known. As he explains: “I think my experience with folk art was crucial. It was folk artists in Saskatchewan who showed me the way out of the whole art school/art magazine syndrome into making some of my own work. It was a sort of signal to me of how you could be unique and independent.” Indeed, Thauberger’s exploration of folk art, starting in 1974, became the ‘eureka moment’ that shaped the rest of his career. It enabled him to translate his attraction to the bright colours, banal imagery and urbanity of Funk and Pop art into a language that resonated with his lived experience.
Despite Thauberger’s reluctance to align himself with any ‘isms,’ he considers it an essential part of his job as an artist to look at the work of other artists. Nearly every year since he graduated Thauberger has travelled internationally to soak up art in the major centres, particularly New York and Paris. Crystal Palace (1979; cat. 16) and Slough (1979; fig.) are two of the strongest paintings from a series of large works he made after his first trip to Europe. Aesthetically, Thauberger nods to the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet’s water lily paintings, as well as to his nemesis—the colour field painter—to produce his most lyrical body of work. One important impact of this trip was an appreciation of how the Impressionists were relating to their immediate environment, capturing what was outside their windows. This reinforced his interest in the world of everyday lived experience and the low culture sources found in Pop and folk art.
The Persistence of Nostalgia
Thauberger’s insistence on living in and responding to the present recalls The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire, who complained (in 1863) that only a few artists were able to see the beauty in contemporary life:
And the external world is reborn upon his paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, strange and endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of its creator. The phantasmagoria has been distilled from nature. All the raw materials with which the memory has loaded itself are put in order, ranged and harmonized, and undergo that forced idealization which is the result of a childlike perceptiveness—that is to say, a perceptiveness acute and magical by reason of its innocence!
No one would call Thauberger a flanêur. Thauberger’s astute observations open a space between verisimilitude and abstraction, providing the lens for a Prairie phantasmagoria.
Thauberger’s approach suggests a resistance to nostalgia by drawing considerable attention to the construction of the images. Gritty provisional buildings are common in the Prairies, along with the more genteel suburban houses and clapboard churches. The prairies are washed in a strong, even light, which accentuates silhouettes and makes colour seem harsh, and are dominated by long, open vistas. In a bold move Thauberger inverted the long vista in favour of a confrontational, close-up view of buildings at times perversely chosen for their lack of importance, such as Yellow House (1987; cat. 32) or Mack’s Garage (1991; cat. 35). The strong light, crisp shadows, and emphatic flatness of the buildings aligned with his formal interests. Unlike a photograph that seems to exist at the moment the shot was taken, Thauberger’s paintings are not so defined—they are simultaneously outmoded and fresh. He simplifies his subject, reducing the detritus that makes it real. It seems paradoxical that he empties life out of the subject in the process of making an image that is never lifeless. He refers to his aesthetic as “genuine simulation,” and “takes the position that a proper genuine simulation can’t be built on something fake.” Indeed, Thauberger is averse to being called nostalgic, insisting that what he paints is out there.
This lively contradiction can be examined through the semiotics of the postcard. Thauberger began collecting postcards in graduate school, but it was not until works like Dance Hall (1980; cat. 18) that he appropriated what he needed from their visual language. Postcards are revealing when considering the construction of the image, specifically how elements are enhanced through editing, whether with super-charged colour, cropping, elimination of details, or creating composites from multiple sources. The postcard attempts to capture what is both ubiquitous and unique about a place symbolized by its best features: iconic buildings, natural wonders, monuments and the like. Encountering the actual buildings represented in works like White Hall (1981; cat. 22) or Rainbow Danceland (1979; cat. 15) is oddly disappointing. The years that have passed notwithstanding, they look rundown and shabby, so very ordinary. There is no glitter on Danceland and no giant palm trees framing it, and yet one would not be surprised to find them there.
In addition to the “genuine simulation” of local spots, Thauberger has made several series of paintings based on postcards of places he has never visited. One such series from 1983 features Niagara Falls, Observation Point (cat. 27) and Snow Falls (cat. 28), which is “famous for being famous.” The mountain and lake images, such as Lake Reflecting Mountains (1982; cat. 24), speak also to notions of Canadian history and identity. Indeed, both waterfalls and mountains have a long tradition of representation, their sublime power representing the divine, civilizing might of colonizing entitlement. The lingering symbolism is largely tied up with our fantasies about wilderness alongside the very real beauty and grandeur of nature, however culturally mediated it has become.
Fantasies of the cultural sort were brilliantly expressed at the World’s Fair held in New York in 1939. The Fair was an elaborate scheme to boost the economy in the midst of the Depression, and it is perhaps the anxiety of the time that led to such utopian extravagance. Steel Pavilion (1986; cat. 30) and Parachute Jump (1986; cat. 31) are two works Thauberger painted based on postcards of the exposition, “Presenting the fair as it chose to see itself, these works are about images, image-making and the wizardry, magic and power of illusion.” Certainly, if these sites were not so intensely mediated they would hold no interest for Thauberger. Seen alongside his paintings of prosaic buildings, these works draw attention to how cultural values, history and aspirations can be embodied in the structures we erect.
Thauberger’s paintings operate as a souvenir or memento, oscillating between the familiar of the local, lived experience and the exotic of distant places. Michael D. Hall discusses how Thauberger uses postcards: “Over time, the abstracted ‘truth’ of the postcard conditions (and in some cases replaces) the truth of actual experience in the memory of the tourist who originally acquired the card.” Indeed, as Linda Hutcheon states, “it is the very pastness of the past, its inaccessibility, that likely accounts for a large part of nostalgia’s power.” She points out that people do not actually want to return to a place, but to a time, and since time cannot be returned to it always maintains its distance. This attitude is exemplified in Thauberger’s ongoing body of work featuring Prince Edward Island. Paintings like Lobster Boy (1993; cat. 38) and Island Christmas (1994; cat. 40) emanate quaintness and postcard perfection. The geography, history and picturesque setting of the Island demanded a different treatment. He often sets buildings further back into the middle and background, and makes the quality of light and shadow more subtle. The astonishing thing for Thauberger during his residency in Charlottetown in 1993 was that every place he visited was already a picture, as if the builders had considered composition when siting and designing them.
The Car Window
Thauberger’s paintings may function as a record and a typology, but he does not approach his subject with these in mind. In Michael D. Hall’s essay for an exhibition of paintings featuring Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, he points out that Moose Jaw is an ideal locale for Thauberger, as it is “compressed into a very dense visual sign system….[where] he finds his muse beckoning from around every corner in the small grid of streets.” As much as that collection of paintings resonates powerfully with its residents, it does not tell the story about that place—except by what people bring to it through their own experiences. The curious thing is how much we respond to the truth and history that we feel from Thauberger’s work, when that history is not what the artist is attempting to communicate. Or does Thauberger’s deep relationship with the places he paints and his voracious curiosity about people and culture bleed through to the surface, accentuated by the level of detail, however stylized it may be?
The view from the car window reveals idiosyncratic architecture—the type favoured by Thauberger—dotting Canada’s highways, although many roadside amenities have been standardized by corporate entities (Tim Horton’s, Petro Canada, hotel chains). Some of these restaurants, motels and gas stations have fallen into disuse while others get a fresh lick of paint and a new name to keep the customers coming. Often, these buildings stand kilometres away from anything else. For people who take repeated journeys cross country, those buildings become favourite rest stops, emblematic of a particular trip or summer vacation; they come to signify the experience of driving through or to or from a place. It does not matter that Thauberger never painted these specific buildings, he has changed how we look at them.
While some of Thauberger’s subjects come from the highways, many are nestled in small towns, and others are in big cities, but all carry the same kinds of associations for viewers. Thauberger’s more urbane pictures are not always marked by the architectural idiosyncrasy of small town buildings, yet often share either a modernist aesthetic or the dream of utopian expansionism. The appeal of Thauberger’s imagery is the familiar ‘feel’ of the buildings. They suggest human activity within communal or social spaces, and not the isolation that is often linked to Prairie regionalism.
One of the building types closely associated with the Prairies is the grain elevator. Aside from two small silkscreens with flocking, McCargar’s Print (1980; cat. 58) and McCargar’s Print (day) (1981; cat. 59), which are stripped of detail and given a fabulous pop art treatment, Thauberger had deliberately avoided that building type as it was too tied up with Prairie iconography, and overused by painters, good and bad, before him. As architectural historian Trevor Boddy explains, “For poet, farmer, architect and artist alike, the grain elevator is the building which is formed by and reflects back the landscape, economic wealth and social structure of the prairies,” as well as exemplifying what Le Corbusier and his Bauhaus contemporaries in Europe considered the “’engineer’s aesthetic’ which allowed North Americans to build unfettered by the burden of history.”
Yet when they started being torn down, a different kind of imperative drove their depictions, and Thauberger was confident enough not to care about being defined by the shop-worn regional icon. He gave them his typical up-close, front-and-centre treatment, which minimized their overwhelming verticality on the prairie horizon in works such as Long Haul (2000; cat. 44). The artist accounts for his decision:
‘It seems so clichéd, but it also seemed timely…. They’re going fast—400 closed in Saskatchewan, with only 200 left. Even today, they’re a neat addition to the landscape. Corbusier visited the Lakehead and flipped out; he found them amazing futuristic forms in his time. I just decided it was time to wipe out all this bad art and take another look…. I’ve been taking photographs of the new grain terminals. They’re interesting, and I’ll be as unapologetic about painting them as painting the older ones. They are what they are, they’re here and they bring up other questions. This is now, and that’s where I want to be.’
Thauberger’s depictions of grain elevators reveal the modernist aesthetic, the economics of agriculture, a sense of loss for a way of life, and the pragmatism of simply being available as a subject. They are not about any of these things, if we are to believe the artist, and yet they cannot be separated from each other nor extracted from the work.
The Painter’s Dilemma
The apparent simplicity and directness that characterizes Thauberger’s practice belies his deep understanding of art history, both of the canon and in the margins of folk art. He is not content to merely study and analyze, he must act, either by making or by collecting. Although Thauberger has faced an impasse from time to time, when he encounters problems he solves them by making, and once solved, he continues to make. In his career to date Thauberger has painted more than 1500 paintings—all without the use of studio assistants. He has also produced about 40 print editions with master printers, and in his years as a student, created over 200 ceramic pieces. Each one is noted in a ledger and documented in a 35-mm slide.
The Pluralities 1980 exhibition at the National Gallery brought Thauberger to the attention of Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays, who characterized him as:
a bad boy scandalizing the prim prairie color-field abstractionists with archly vulgar black-velvetoid landscapes and flocked prints of cuddly bunnies. At the time, there seemed to be attractive impudence in those pictures, a timely irreverence for a parochial modernism that had grown stale and pious, and needed a jolt.
Nearly 10 years later, on the occasion of Thauberger’s survey exhibition of painting organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 1988, Mays questioned the validity of the regionalist position that curator Peter White and critic Nancy Tousley articulated in their landmark catalogue essays. Mays seemed to lament the taming effect of regionalism on Thauberger’s potential to keep pushing back and challenging what painting can do. The criticism may be unfair, but within it lies the tension that gives Thauberger his edge and fuels the lingering contradictions in his work.
Emblazoned with the words “New York” on one canvas and “San Jose” on the other, Painter’s Dilemma (1990; cat. 33) hardly stands out as one of the artist’s signature works. Yet, within and around the letters are hints of Thauberger’s interest in postcard imagery: cool grey and green skyscrapers, hot orange and yellow-tiled buildings, tropical plants. The painting literally captures the pull Thauberger feels between the figuration and eclecticism of Funk in California and the formal approaches of both Pop art and abstraction in New York. This painting has become emblematic for understanding Thauberger’s career as an artist. The dilemma of the painter is his ongoing questioning of how to prioritize and articulate his interests and influences. He is a keen observer and consumer of what is around him—whether within the art world or the quotidian. Thauberger has great discipline; for him, it is not ‘anything goes,’ despite his rather catholic tastes and seeming playfulness.
David Thauberger is assertive and strategic, not only as an artist, but as a collector, scholar and advocate for the arts. His clarity of vision, synthesis of cultural values, and independently minded, authentic expression have resulted in a body of work that challenges the categories of art and casts the Prairies in a new light. For those who have seen Thauberger’s work, the view from the car window will never be the same.
1 David Thauberger, in conversation with the author, January 15, 2014.
2 The thirteen artists were Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.
3 Thauberger was more concerned with the formal aspects of painting than with social or political issues, although the subject matter of the vernacular gave Thauberger’s work a political framework in its critical reception within regionalism.
4 Karen Finlay, David Thauberger – Prints (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1984), unpaginated.
5 Nancy Tousley, “Putting Things in Place: David Thauberger’s Vernacular Style,” in David Thauberger: Paintings, 1978-1988 (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1988), 16.
6 Northrop Frye, “Culture as Interpenetration,” in Divisions on a Ground (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1982), 24-25. Moreover, Frye points out that one’s community is not necessarily the market for an artist’s work: “the more intensely Faulkner concentrates on his unpronounceable county in Mississippi, the more intelligible he becomes to readers all over the world.”
7 David Thauberger, “Personal Bests.” Canadian Art 2, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 50.
8 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 12.
9 Michael D. Hall, David Thauberger and the Art of the Genuine Simulation (Moose Jaw: Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, 2002), 13.
10 Located in Craik and Manitou Springs, Saskatchewan, respectively.
11 John Bentley Mays, “A Hard-Eyed Look Beyond Landscape,” The Globe and Mail, November 19, 1983.
12 Peter White, “Popular Myths/Cultural Realities,” in David Thauberger: Paintings, 1978-1988 (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1988), 49.
13 Hall, Art of the Genuine Simulation, 5.
14 Linda Hutcheon, “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern,” Methods for the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory 6 (1998): 192.
15 David Thauberger, in conversation with the author, November 13, 2013.
16 He often knows where the buildings are that he paints, but he rarely titles them in a way that indicates their location.
17 35 works, created over 25 years, were presented at the Moose Jaw Art Gallery and Museum.
18 Hall, Art of the Genuine Simulation, 13.
19 Trevor Boddy, “Introduction: Notes for a History of Prairie Architecture” in “Special Issue on Prairie Architecture,” Prairie Forum 5, no. 2 (1980): 134.
20 Boddy, 136.
21 David Thauberger quoted in Alan Kellog, “David Thauberger: Realism rooted in the Prairie Soil,” Edmonton Journal, April 10, 2001.
22 Regionalism has to be considered beyond being an artistic manifestation of authentic lived experience that is rooted in place. There is also the issue of Thauberger’s wide commercial success, compared to his museum success. Many works in public collections outside of Saskatchewan were collected within a few years of the Pluralities exhibition (notable exceptions include the University of Lethbridge), while he has had gallery representation in all major Canadian cities. Thauberger may or may not identify as regionalist, and perhaps regionalism is not the hot theoretical topic it once was; however, it is very apparent in the collecting and exhibiting activities of art museums in Canada, as well as in the writings of art history books, such as Dennis Reid’s A Concise History of Canadian Painting.
23 Thauberger has made three donations of his early works on paper, printmaking proofs, ceramics, slides and his personal papers to the University of Regina Archives. His first gift consisted of his research material and objects of folk art. Richard Spafford was instrumental in encouraging the Archives to collect artists’ papers.
24 Mays, “David Thauberger’s Cheek Now Feels More Like Chic,” The Globe and Mail, April 12, 1989. 25 Mays, “David Thauberger’s Cheek Now Feels More like Chic.”
It all started with a bowl of cabbage rolls. A man of hearty appetites, art professor David Gilhooly was more than happy to lay hands on a casserole of stuffed cabbage cooked by Veronica “Ronnie” Thauberger, wife of student David Thauberger. In exchange, the couple received an unorthodox clay sculpture: a “fruit bowl” in the shape of a hedgehog, a vessel that Gilhooly had designed to hold impaled pieces of fruit on its ceramic spines. A second hedgehog was received in trade for a pot of perogies made by Thauberger’s aunt. They were Thauberger’s first trades and although the exchanges between art student and professor seemed humble enough on the surface, the ramifications were profound. Cabbage rolls and perogies were a mainstay in both David’s German-Canadian and Ronnie’s Ukrainian-Canadian families, but they were dishes that had met with disdain from the Anglo-Scots establishment of western Canada until well into the twentieth century. Clay is a material that in the 1970s was still engaged in a struggle for legitimacy as a sculptural medium. Marginal ethnic foodstuffs exchanged for artworks in a marginal artistic medium. In retrospect it was an appropriate beginning to a collection that would trade in both outsider identities and modes of production.
If possessions define identity, collections are a singular portrait of their owners’ true selves, a kind of “material autobiography” to use the words of Susan M. Pearce. When it comes to collecting, this has been the main line of inquiry for much of the past century. Collections are seen as personal pursuits intended to satisfy deep-seated psychological drives, such as the need to tame anxiety through the imposition of order, the itch to satisfy curiosity, or the yearning to create coherent narratives out of the chaos of life. Roger Cardinal’s essay on Dada artist Kurt Schwitters provides an example of the kind of narrative impulse often connected with collecting: “In its sequential evolution, the collection encodes an intimate narrative, . . . the continuous thread through which selfhood is sewn into the unfolding fabric of a lifetime’s experience.” Such a description might well be applied to David Thauberger’s collecting, which provides a “thread” stitching together the various phases of his career going back to his student days with Gilhooly.
While this autobiographical view of collecting might lead us to think of it as a private affair, an emblem of the autonomous self, David Thauberger’s collection shows us another possibility. The hedgehogs mark an acquisition, true, but they also register the debt owed to his mentor, who provided an essential model for both his artistic practice and activity as a collector. As an artist, Thauberger set out on a quest to identify rejected and overlooked parts of everyday experience and to discover the appropriate means to register those observations. That quest also led him to collect. Each addition to his collection can be read as act of identification with another artist who had faced similar questions related to a marginalized identity or unorthodox mode of production.Each transaction registers a relationship to a person, establishing ever-widening circles of connection. When taken as a whole, Thauberger’s collection not only defines his view of art, but the outlook of an entire arts community.
Collecting is a contagious activity. When the imposing six-foot-five Californian David Gilhooly descended on the art department at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus in 1969, bringing his funk attitude to art and life, he not only sparked a small revolution, he also provided an infectious example of the joys of collecting. Thauberger had already been exposed to collecting at home in Holdfast, Saskatchewan, having picked up the mania for stamps and coins from his father and older brother John, but this type of collecting lacked a broader purpose and Thauberger dropped it after high school. With Gilhooly’s example before him, Thauberger began to collect with new focus and direction. “The idea of living with art came from Gilhooly,” recalls Thauberger, who shared a studio with his professor for a year, a space filled with postcards and other images. “It was a very ceramic idea.” Thauberger later saw that all the studios of artists in California were similarly crammed with visual fodder. Beyond creating a rich visual environment, Gilhooly was regularly exchanging artworks with other professors and art students. Gilhooly’s generosity and enthusiasm was contagious: “Everybody got the bug about collecting and trading.” Over the coming years, Thauberger would continue to trade with fellow artists of the Regina Clay movement, such as Lorne Beug, Victor Cicansky, Joe Fafard, Jack Sures and Russell Yuristy, as well as artists of the generation that followed.
Thauberger’s trades with Gilhooly did not stop at the hedgehogs. As a student, he acquired a cookie jar topped with a vivid depiction of St. George and the Dragon (1969; cat. 87), this time in exchange for a ceramic bowl of borscht made by Thauberger himself. St. George and the Dragon belongs to Gilhooly’s well-known Frog World, a series of ceramic sculptures in which he recreates history and legend through an amphibian lens. The irreverent scene atop the cookie jar riffs on Raphael’s painting of the same subject, here featuring a frog St. George riding a steed modelled on a prehistoric Titanothere. Created with whiteware clay and hobbyist glazes, the sculpture embodied an anti-elitist attitude summed up by the bumper sticker on Gilhooly’s Travelall panel truck: “Ceramics: The World’s Most Fascinating Hobby!.”
Though not immediately evident, the example of Frog World has had far-ranging implications for Thauberger’s collecting. As Susan M. Pearce has pointed out, “the accumulation of frog images is an extremely common form of collecting,” one that on a metaphorical level helps “create social relationships between people and between people and nature.” Gilhooly’s genius was to take populist forms of collecting and ceramic craft production that were typically the domain of middle-aged hobbyists, and turn them into a model of art-making that parodies and inverts the hierarchies of art, society and nature.Works such as St. George and the Dragon self-consciously mirror both the pillaging of art treasures by the colonial empires, and the scientific imperialism that has catalogued and collected natural history around the world. Interestingly, the cookie jar was one that the Victoria & Albert Museum had expressed interest in buying, but had been slow to purchase outright. Rather than wait, Gilhooly exchanged it for the work of an unknown student from Regina. This inside-out approach to art-making and collecting has informed the structure of Thauberger’s practice as artist and collector ever since.
From Kitsch to Folk
Moving to the United States in 1971 for graduate studies at California State University, Sacramento introduced Thauberger to a wide range of new experiences. In addition to an artistic environment that was vibrating with the energy of Bay Area funk, he quickly discovered the material treasures of the city’s second-hand stores. They were unlike anything he had seen in Regina. Here he began to collect kitsch: ceramic figurines, Toby jugs, plastic flowers and other gewgaws that could be incorporated into his clay sculptures, an idea picked up from ceramic artists like Vic Cicansky in Regina; postcards from the 1930s and ‘40s with their art deco designs and retro airbrushed backgrounds; and Hawaiian shirts. Gilhooly had become famous in Regina for wearing his leopard skin vest to openings. Thauberger was determined to make his mark wearing the most outrageous five-cent Hawaiian shirts he could buy, or ones he could persuade Ronnie to sew. Whether they were covered with Snickers bars, red and green peppers, or palm trees and drum sets, it really didn’t matter so long as they stood out. The idea was to “be extreme” and to get attention. More collecting ensued in Missoula, where he moved in 1972 to pursue studies at the University of Montana. By 1973, Thauberger had the beginnings of a kitsch collection that would provide him with an eccentric inventory of objects and images for years to come.
Not long after he returned to Regina in the fall of 1973, he was offered a job at the Saskatchewan Arts Board (SAB) where he was hired as Visual Arts Assistant by the Art Consultant, Lea Collins. Collins, who had been guiding the collecting activities of the SAB since 1964, was under pressure from provincial auditors to catalogue the art collection, which had been started in 1950. Thauberger’s job was to go through the sales records of nearly 800 pieces of art and catalogue them, a job that he would work on full time for a year and a half and part time for another three. In the process of photographing the objects and making card files, Thauberger became intimately acquainted with the collection and with the ethos of preservation that is at the heart of museum collecting.
Tucked among the works of Saskatchewan’s professional artists were some surprises, including objects that Collins had picked up at small town art shows. One such work, a painting of a “huge orange sunset” by W. C. McCargar, struck Thauberger as “the most hideous painting I’d ever seen.” Unable to forget it, he hung it over his desk where it continued to work its way into his consciousness. Extended exposure to work is a consistent theme in his development and a mainspring of his urge to collect. “[The work] feeds you something and you’re not even entirely sure what it is.” In this case, the lessons learned were nothing short of a revelation:
I think the thing that opened the door was first of all the color—the incredibleness of the color. The outrageousness of the subject, the way it was, the stylization of it, the formal elements of it . . . . And then the fact that it actually was here . . . this guy was actually painting this place! And it was as outrageous and as colorful and as inventive as anything that any trained artists in the art capitals were doing at the time . . . . It gave me permission to deal with this place on my terms!
His discovery was soon reinforced by travels around the province. When Collins asked Thauberger if he would serve as juror for the Watrous Art Salon in 1974, he thought “why not?” This two week juried exhibition, which was held in the community hall, had started as a centennial project in 1967 and had run for several years with the assistance of the SAB, which provided an honorarium for a professional juror. The experience opened his eyes to the breadth of the Saskatchewan folk art phenomenon: “that’s where I first saw that it was more than just McCargar and Jan Wyers.” Following the exhibition, Thauberger corresponded with a number of the artists, making requests to purchase pieces. The first work acquired—indeed the first artwork that he ever paid cash for—was Harvey McInnes’ Foothill Country (1974; cat. 94), a drawing that he acquired for the princely sum of $25. Other purchases ensued, including Molly Lenhardt’s The Poet’s Dream, Cornilus Van Ieperen’s Steam Era, and Laura Harness’ The Abandoned Car. It was a pattern that he would continue to pursue; if he saw a work he liked, he would seek out the artist, often paying them a visit.
Travelling with the SAB collection, which at this point was still being circulated in exhibitions to small centres across the province, provided Thauberger the opportunities to meet folk artists in their home communities. Family travel provided other occasions. Molly Lenhardt’s store in Melville was a frequent stop on the way to Ronnie’s parents in Yorkton. In 1975 Lenhardt reciprocated the interest shown in her work by painting two portraits of Thauberger’s family, Father and Son and Mother and Child (both now in the collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery). In 1985, she produced An Artist and His Dreams (cat. 90), a portrait that suggests that in his dealings with folk artists Thauberger was always an artist first and a collector second. Another folk painter of interest was Ann Harbuz, an artist of Ukrainian descent from North Battleford. After turning down Thauberger’s request to make yet another copy of Ten Weddings (she made a total of five versions of this popular work), she instead told him, “I want to make a painting about my life.” Across the Country of Saskatchewan (1981; cat. 88) is a conceptually complex landscape containing several vignettes from the artist’s life. Acknowledging her patron, Harbuz asked Thauberger if he had a photograph of his house on Montague Street in Regina. The house appears in the upper left-hand corner of the painting along with a small portrait of Thauberger, an artist-collector on the move carrying a painting under his arm. Other works were bought at the sales desk of the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, one of the few outlets for artists prior to the opening of commercial galleries in the province. Here Thauberger found paintings by Wesley Dennis, an artist whom he would later visit in the small town of Brownlee, Saskatchewan, along with the artist’s painter-wife, Eva. Outhouse Cup (1972; cat. 82), a ceramic work by colleague and fellow folk art aficionado Victor Cicansky, also came from the sales desk. His continued interest in McCargar eventually led Thauberger to seek out the reclusive folk artist with, as it happened, the help of fellow artist and collector Jack Severson. Sometime in the early 1970s, they “called him up out of the phone book” and visited the folk artist’s Regina apartment where they discovered a “whole bedroom just littered with his stuff, just piled up . . . full.” “With enough pleading, he would sell,” recalls Thauberger, who purchased Midnite Express (c. 1962; cat. 92) and Sunrise Express (1963; cat. 93) around this time. The idea of treating the same image as a duality (day/night), the sharp-edged treatment of buildings, and the use of unusual media, like glitter, joined a growing inventory of folk art techniques that were available to Thauberger for his own paintings of prairie vernacular architecture.
Even more importantly, collecting the work of folk artists cemented a new understanding of the outsider in Thauberger’s mind. Prior to starting at the SAB, Thauberger had cultivated a fascination with outlaw biker culture as a source for his work, an interest that he had developed during his graduate studies. A series of biker trophies, including his Evil Kneevil Jumps Snake River Canyon (1973; cat. 75), play on this interest. Of course, making images of subcultures flirts with the same voyeuristic desires that keep side-shows in business, even if the fascination is bracketed with irony. As a recent graduate finding his away among the crowded terrain of the post-Pop art world, looking freakish in loud Hawaiian shirts and adopting a practiced taste for the bizarre in his sculptures offered what seemed to be his best chance for recognition. However, when encounters with folk art helped him to realize that life on the prairies was no less exotic than urban subcultures, a seismic shift in attitude was the result. Why look to San Francisco or Chicago for subject matter when equally interesting things were to be found in your own back yard? Moreover, through folk art Thauberger discovered a sense of his own ‘otherness’ His camaraderie with folk artists moved him from an art student’s fascination with the crowds gawking at Evel Knievel’s daredevil stunts to a sympathetic identification with real people—people who shared his own perplexing position as an outsider in possession of unacknowledged insider knowledge. Collecting was both the vehicle and expression of this discovery.
At the same time that he was discovering folk art, Thauberger was thinking a great deal about the art he had seen in California. His experience there had been formative and he wanted to remain in contact with those sources. A series of return trips to California through the 1970s and 1980s allowed him to renew acquaintances and to collect works by artists that he admired. Having ready access to this work was essential. “To be quite honest, I couldn’t see those things in the local art gallery or museum. . . . It’s not like I could go down to the MacKenzie and ask, ‘Mind if I had a look at all your Jim Nutts or Roy De Forests?’” As Peter White notes, as “reference points as well as cues for memory, these works narrate and constantly feed back not simply on his art but on his history and career as an artist.” And like artists of past generations going back to Vasari and Rubens, prints offered a practical and economical means of studying the masters.
Many early acquisitions were works of professors and artists he had seen during his studies at Sacramento State. On arriving in Sacramento, Thauberger had attended a faculty show at the university where he saw the work of Jim Nutt, Joseph Raffael and others. For the ceramics major, it was a revelation about the possibilities of painting: “I had no idea that there was that kind of painting going on and that it was that good. . . . I thought, “Oh, so this is what painting can be about. It doesn’t have to be about so many pounds of paint slathered onto a canvas.”
Looking at the work of Nutt, who was teaching and running the student gallery, he thought, “Oh, this looks like this could be fun!” Returning to Sacramento in 1976, Thauberger paid a visit to The Candy Store in nearby Folsom, an art gallery devoted to funk art that was owned by the legendary Adeliza McHugh. Here Thauberger purchased Wishpered, a small etching by Nutt for $35, his first purchase of a work by a non-folk artist. In 1978, Thauberger travelled to California with Jack Severson where they met up with Joe Fafard to see the Raffael retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A side trip with Fafard to Roy De Forest’s studio followed. There he bought a drawing and received two more works as a gift. Thauberger had seen De Forest’s solo show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1971 and had admired his rambunctious personal mythologies and decorated frames. A visit to Clayton Bailey’s “Wonders of the World Museum” resulted in the purchase of a monster cookie jar and a “Bigfoot” mug. Of course, the trip would not be complete without a stop in Sacramento and a visit to The Candy Store. After persuading McHugh that he had not defaulted on payment for the Nutt acquired two years earlier, Thauberger bought another small print by the artist, I’m Not Stopping (1977; cat. 95), as well as First of Three and Second of Three by Gladys Nilsson, Nutt’s wife. By this point, Thauberger was a committed collector. Looking back he recalls, “That’s how I started collecting—I just realized that you could actually pay money and get these things.”
Since then, Thauberger has acquired works by his California heroes whenever he can find them. William Wiley was a major influence after Thauberger saw his breakthrough solo exhibition, Wizdumb, at the University Art Museum at Berkeley in 1971, a show that he recalls “really took the top off of my head.” Thinking to himself, “I could do this,” Thauberger bought watercolour paper and started painting at his kitchen table in the evenings using Wiley’s trademark technique of outlining watercolour stains with felt pen (cf. Pie in the Sky, cat.1 and Rhino Soup, cat. 2). He later saw Wiley’s work at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in 1973 in the exhibition 3 Americans: Wayne Thiebaud, H.C. Westermann, William T. Wiley, which included Moon Mullings (1972; cat. 101), Wiley’s first lithograph made at Landfall Press. Thauberger acquired the print in New York at Allan Frumkin Gallery a few years later. Wayne Thiebaud, a professor at the University of California, Davis in the 1970s, was another artist who left a deep impression on the young Thauberger. His seductively painted images of pool balls, banana splits and bowls of cherries taught Thauberger about the material qualities of paint and the value of looking afresh at the everyday world around him. Thauberger has acquired a number of Thiebaud prints over the years, some of which he has since traded, but Slice of Pie (1964; cat. 99), purchased from Susan Whitney Gallery in Regina in the early 1980s, best sums up the Thiebaud that excited him while in California.
It is tempting to see the prints that Thauberger has acquired as a kind of how-to manual. Indeed, Thauberger is fascinated by popular efforts during the 1950s to teach the public how to make art, whether through John Gnagy’s television show “You Are an Artist” or paint-by-number kits. He is ever curious about how images are made and why millions of people make art; much of his kitsch collection is driven by this curiosity. But a look at what he has collected points to a purpose other than a catalogue of techniques. In the funk work of Nutt, Nilsson, De Forest, Wiley and others, Thauberger was learning important lessons about how personal experience, no matter how strange or off-the-beaten track, could be brought into art, even as he was making similar discoveries through his encounters with folk art. These sympathies have since led him to branch out to collect work from related movements, such as the Chicago Imagists. Prints by Ed Paschke, Roger Brown (whom he had seen at Sacramento State) and Barbara Rossi provide telling examples of artists who have processed the world through a surrealist lens and found a way to make compelling images that probe the fringes of popular consciousness. Purchases of Outsider artists proper, such as Scottie Wilson, Joseph Yoakum, and Bill Traylor have continued this line of collecting even more directly. In this sense, his collection can be seen as a reconstruction of an apprenticeship in marginal identities and modes of vision.
Another important aspect of Thauberger’s collection recalls the moment in Regina when the reigning orthodoxy of abstract expressionism was challenged by alternatives emanating, not from California, but from New York itself. Every day on his way to art classes on the upper level of the old Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Thauberger walked past the large Frank Stella painting Union II (1966; fig.), which hung near the entrance staircase. The American minimalist’s use of masking tape, a tool of the trade of house painters, was an early, if unconscious, influence on the young artist. The screenprint Chocurua (1974; cat. 98), acquired years later, relates directly to the series of Irregular Polygon paintings to which Union II belongs.
As a student in Regina, Thauberger also saw Stella’s work in the exhibition New York 13, a blockbuster touring show organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, which appeared at the Norman Mackenzie in March–April 1969. According to Lucy Lippard’s text for the catalogue, the exhibition offered an index of “most of the alternatives to action painting current by 1965: geometry and ‘post’ geometry, primary structure, monochrome painting, assemblage, pop, color abstraction, figuration, environment, kinetic art and the ‘new materialism’, or anti-form.” Viewing the show repeatedly, Thauberger was infused with the attitudes of New York pop and minimalism. As a budding collector, Thauberger desperately wanted a print by American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, whom he had seen in the exhibition. Even then, prints by this artist commanded a price beyond his means, and so when a more affordable alternative came his way in the work of British pop artist Patrick Caulfield, he took it. Purchased in 1977 from dealer Peter Millard in Saskatoon, it was his first acquisition of a print by an artist from outside North America. Black and White Café (1972-3; cat. 81) exemplifies Caulfield’s approach, which borrows from the look of comic books and commercial illustration to make formally complex images that are both accessible and intelligent. A few years later in New York, Thauberger realized his dream of owning a Lichtenstein by acquiring Haystack (1969; cat. 91) from Pace Editions. Since then, of the nine painters in New York 13, Thauberger has acquired works by seven, including Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.
Making Art History
The assemblage of works that can be found in Thauberger’s home today rivals in size the collection that he set out to catalogue at the Saskatchewan Arts Board in 1974. The total number of works that he has acquired is difficult to determine, given the number of trades he has made and the generous donations that he and Ronnie have presented to the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, and University of Lethbridge Art Gallery over the years. With sporadic exceptions, the basic outlines of his collection have remained the same since 1980: artist friends, folk artists, California funk, Chicago Imagists, New York and British pop, Outsider art, and kitsch. Surveying Thauberger’s years of collecting, cultural theorist Michael Hall observes: “all of these collections seem to flow seamlessly together. Thauberger sees beyond the old thinking that traditionally separates human creative productions into exclusive categories such as those suggested by the terms ‘fine art,’ ‘folk art,’ and ‘popular culture.’” In crossing the boundaries between high and low art, Thauberger has mirrored in his collection what Gilhooly achieved in his Frog World. His collection is an assertion of the primacy of the vernacular as the motive force of creative expression.
Through collecting, Thauberger internalized the influences that drove his own artmaking. Over the years, his collection has been a vital repository of images and techniques for reference and reinforcement. But the values affirmed by his collection are not the collector’s alone. Although they feed into his biography and are inseparable from his development as an artist, they have a significance that reaches beyond the individual. As the record of an intricate web of transactions between Thauberger and an extended circle of artists, the collection offers a persuasive reading of an entire community as it discovered the extraordinary possibilities concealed in the ‘back forty’ of art and experience. Thauberger himself is conscious of building this narrative:
We’re making art history here. Molly Lenhardt is part of it and by extension Gilhooly is a part of it. Then also Gilhooly’s influences and enthusiasms and experiences are part of it, so that brings in people like Roy De Forest or people like Robert Arneson and clay, which is how that works. . . . It’s a real community, in a broader sense. An art community.
His collection is the externalization of a deep involvement in what was going on around him. It embodies the tangle of offbeat visions, personal enthusiasms, and unorthodox techniques that were shaking down from art schools and bubbling up from self-taught artists in an amazing convergence of shared attitudes and convictions. For Thauberger, this is a community worth celebrating and a history worth preserving. From cabbage rolls and perogies to a collection that defines a community, Thauberger’s original trades with Gilhooly have resulted in a legacy that feeds us all.
1 All biographical information and quotations by the artist in this essay are taken from a series of interviews with the author, August 2013 to February 2014, unless otherwise noted.
2 My mother’s home town of Dilke is just fifteen kilometres down the road from Holdfast, where Thauberger grew up. Yet cabbage rolls and perogies were unknown in her Scottish-Ontario kitchen until she encountered them at community suppers in Regina many years later.
3 Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (Collecting Cultures), Kindle edition (London: Taylor and Francis, 2005), Kindle location 4969. Originally published (Oxford: Routledge, 1995).
4 G. Thomas Tanselle lists the motivations as “the creation of order, a fascination with chance, curiosity about the past, and a desire for understanding . . . all subsumed under the urge to tame the external world. “A Rationale of Collecting,” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 51 (1998): 14.
5 Roger Cardinal, “Collecting and Collage-Making: The Case of Kurt Schwitters,” in Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (London: Reaktion, 1994), 68-96. Quoted in G. Thomas Tanselle, “A Rationale of Collecting,” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 51 (1998): 13.
6 In Peter White’s excellent essay on Thauberger’s collection, he argues for the “autobiographical nature of his collection,” while acknowledging the importance of “concepts of community and identity” to that endeavour. My essay is an attempt to expand on this insight and further elaborate the communal contexts that serve as the origins for his collecting. See Peter White, “Beyond Context: David Thauberger’s Art Collection,” in David Thauberger: Paintings 1978–1988 (Regina: Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1988), 64–65.
7 Pearce, Kindle locations 5001-5003.
8 This is the explicit theme of one of the Gilhooly Frog World sculptures in Thauberger’s collection: Transportation of the Great Cultures to the Great Museums (1971).
9 Thauberger’s efforts were essential for compiling the publication, The Saskatchewan Arts Board Collection (Regina: Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1978), in which 400 works are recorded.
10 David Thauberger, quoted in Michael D. Hall, “David Thauberger and the Art of Genuine Simulation,” in David Thauberger and the Art of Genuine Simulation (Moose Jaw, Sask.: Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, 2002), 9.
11 Thauberger, quoted in Hall.
12 Thauberger bought Four Elevators from Wesley Dennis during one of these visits.
13 See Timothy Long, “Regina Clay: Worlds in the Making,” in Regina Clay: Worlds in the Making (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2005), 45.
14 White, 66.
15 When Roy De Forest came to Regina in 1980 for a solo show at Susan Whitney Gallery, he assembled his custom decorated molded frames and drew on the mats of his lithographs on site in the gallery space. Watching De Forest at work on one work in particular, Thauberger knew on the spot that he wanted it. Untitled (1980) was set aside and purchased from that show.
16 Thauberger later sent McHugh copies of his payment stubs to prove that he had paid for the Nutt print.
17 Severson picked up a third Nilsson, Bluman, which Thauberger has since acquired.
18 At Thauberger’s suggestion, Susan Whitney had brought in this print along with the Delights portfolio to her gallery from the Yarlow/Salzman Gallery in Toronto.
19 The thirteen artists represented in the exhibition were Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol.
20 Lucy Lippard, “Editor’s Note,” New York 13 (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1969), n.p.
21 Thauberger has since gone on to acquire a number of works by the leading artists of British pop: Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Allen Jones, and R.B. Kitaj.
22 Recently Thauberger has acquired a print by one of the sculptors in New York 13, Claes Oldenburg.
23 Since 1986, David and Ronnie Thauberger have donated over 130 works to the MacKenzie Art Gallery and a further 130 to the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery and 19 to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery.
24 Hall, 5.
David Thauberger has always lived and worked as an artist in Regina, Saskatchewan, less than 100 kilometres south of the small farming town of Holdfast where he grew up. Over the course of his career, now in its fifth decade, this part of the flat, southern belt of the Prairies has been his touchstone. Depicting it with care, great insight, conceptual rigour, wit, and formal originality, he has built up a complex, not to mention inimitable and memorable picture of a distinctive identity, history, and way of life.
In Thauberger’s paintings set in this landscape, one does not find the visual clichés that typify representations and mental images of the Prairies. There are no views of endless plains, no flowing fields of wheat, no jaw-dropping images of big skies, no impossibly distant horizons, no tiny signs of human presence to make the landscape look that much more vast. At the same time, there is no concession to taste that is suspicious or dismissive of local subject matter, questions of place, or the vernacular. What there is, rather, is a comprehensive, clearly directed consideration of the Prairies as a social experience examined largely through an iconography of its architecture. Positioned frontally, his stores and garages with their flat façades, pleasure palaces, homes, and iconic institutional and religious buildings are assertive emblems of this reality. While the focal points are the rural towns and urban centres, farms and grain elevators have inevitably been a part of this as well, though not in their familiar guise as ‘prairie chestnuts.’ And, while the open prairie landscape is inescapable, it is almost always represented in the background as part of a larger visual and imaginative construction.
In 1979, around the same time that Thauberger began to paint prairie subjects, the Saskatchewan Archives Board published a book entitled Saskatchewan: A Pictorial History that ends with a chapter on the Second World War. A brief coda mentions that much has changed since 1945—“economic conditions, large-scale mechanized farming, new technologies and industries, modern patterns of transportation, increased urbanization, and new social concepts”—but is a story that remains to be told. A deferral of more than thirty years, especially given this level of activity and development, would seem odd. While there may have been practical or other reasons for it, it is nonetheless indicative of how Saskatchewan was perceived and understood at the time. This was not about a generalized attachment to the past. Rather, it was a strongly felt response to what had been a difficult if not traumatic history and its incorporation in commonly held assumptions about the province’s essential nature.
Most traumatic was the combination of the Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which not only brought to a halt but also sharply reversed what until then had been a remarkable run of social and economic development. Beginning in the later nineteenth century the region had been heavily promoted by government and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a land of boundless promise, the “Last Best West.” With both the inducement of land grants and the apparent viability of cultivating wheat on a large scale, by the 1920s Saskatchewan’s population was nearly one million, making it the third largest province in the country. Nevertheless, optimism and success had always been accompanied by underlying geographic anxiety. In the nineteenth century, the region was surveyed by Captain John Palliser, who declared the southern part of it an extension of the Great American Desert. His conclusion that the area was so predisposed to aridity and drought that it was agriculturally uninhabitable was subsequently rejected by authorities and “immigration propagandists” with whose vision and ambitions it clashed. As has recently been argued, the Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties in Saskatchewan had its roots in an ongoing series of devastating droughts across these plains—what became known as Palliser’s Triangle—that began as early as 1914. If not entirely predictable, the havoc wreaked in this region in the 1930s, from hunger, deprivation, and soil depletion to large-scale land abandonment, was the result of the disastrous synergies of broader economic failure and the intensification of long-standing problems associated with climate.
The psychological scarring from this period and its negative impact on how Saskatchewan now came to be viewed are not hard to understand. The devastation was of a truly remarkable scale. When sent to observe the region, one high-placed federal official reported, “One could never believe the desolation in southern Saskatchewan did he not see it himself. The whole country for more than one hundred miles in extent . . . is a barren drifting desert.”De-population would have been much worse except that with the economic contraction of urban centres, farm families had nowhere else to go. Conditions of this kind readily lent themselves to sensationalism, and, both at the time and long after the fact, widely disseminated photographs and recollections of the Dust Bowl fixed an image of the region that was extreme. For instance, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first significant histories of the period were published, but the titles of James H. Gray’s The Winter Years and Men Against the Desert could hardly have been more grave. For farmers and their families, the legacy was one of persistent doubt about the viability of farming as a way of life. In an article written by resident R. E. Gardiner for a local history of Holdfast published in 1980, a more than lingering feeling of vulnerability is still clearly evident:
Those who experienced those years always fear they may return. Our younger farmer feels that with modern farming practices they should never return. The problem is that no one has found a way to combat total drought. Some remember the dark clouds that came in from the north west and brought hope that this would be much needed rain. When it arrived it was just a lot of wind and dust and for a period of time you couldn’t see across the street.
Virtually from the outset, it had been recognized that homesteading was not necessarily as advertised. The subject of public commentary and a small but significant body of realist literature, the harsher realities of the experience also found expression in folk poetry and song, much of it shot through with black humour. As one ditty went:
Hurrah for the Palliser, land of the free
Land of the wheat rust, grasshopper and flea
I’ll sing and I’ll praise it, I’ll tell of its fame
While starving to death on my government claim.
Considering the gravity of what had happened in the 1930s, or perhaps because of it, the creative response, unlike the popular journalistic reaction, was relatively muted. Two now canonic books, however, are telling in terms of attitudes about the province. Saskatchewan writer Sinclair Ross’ As for Me and My House is a disturbing novel of social dysfunction and cultural isolation set during the Depression in the fictional prairie town of Horizon. The book’s Dust Bowl setting has generally been seen by critics more as a symbolic backdrop than a dynamic factor in the story. Yet the prairie landscape is so adversarial and both so vividly described and present throughout the book that it is questionable whether it can in any meaningful way be disentangled from the narrative of this tragic story. Although published in 1941, the novel did not find a significant audience until it was re-printed in the late 1950s. Even as it was recognized as a landmark of Canadian literature, the severity of its repressions, what one critic has referred to as the “bleakness of non-fulfillment” that suffuses the book, irrevocably identified it with experience particular to the Prairies.
The second book is Wolf Willow, the American writer Wallace Stegner’s extraordinary memoir of growing up in the heart of Palliser’s Triangle in southwestern Saskatchewan, where his family homesteaded from 1914 to 1920. Wolf Willow, which Stegner wrote after he had returned for a visit in the mid-1950s, is a notably prickly and unsentimental book. In it he describes life having been not only just plain hard but also culturally as well as materially impoverished. He also observes that little seemed to have changed and wonders why anyone could still want to live there. Wolf Willow has been embraced as a book that eloquently, perhaps almost uniquely, puts a finger on qualities inimitable to life in Saskatchewan. Undoubtedly, this is because along with the harshness and human duplicity, Stegner did not fail to recognize either what was positive or the fortitude and strength of character of many of those he writes about. Despite these more sanguine aspects, however, Wolf Willow carries forward the deep strain of reticence there had always been about prairie life and leaves little space for illusions.
The portrayal of a punitive natural environment of the sort found in As for Me and My House and Wolf Willow dovetailed in the post-war years with explanations for the province’s decline and status as, in today’s terms, a ‘have-not’ province. This kind of environmental approach, where human character and destiny are linked to physical geography, was particularly problematic for Saskatchewan, since it essentially locked the province into a static, negative image connoting minimal if not negative expectations and ongoing dependence. The difficulty was that by this time at least, the province had moved on. Through the postwar years, Saskatchewan wasn’t so much rebuilt as reconceived. A combination of improving weather, the rise in prices for crops, progressive, far-sighted government, economic diversification, and the general North American economic revival created the conditions for significant improvements in the quality of life as well as demographic change, perhaps most notably the growth and increasing influence of urban life.
Culturally, one of the results of this disjunction between image and lived experience was reflection—soul searching might not be too strong a term—on the question not just of prairie identity but what the ‘Prairies’ even meant in this context. Driven in the 1960s and 1970s by a surge of writing that had the Prairies as its subject and a growing body of literary criticism, the criteria and imaginative structures underlying the by now entrenched stereotypes and essentialized perceptions of the Prairies were dissected and reassessed. Often intense, debate centred on the question of environmental-driven interpretation. Among its most forceful critics was the poet Eli Mandel, who lived in Toronto but had grown up in the southern part of the province. Mandel argued that when the Prairies is understood in terms of physical reality, the specifics and distinctions of history and personal experience are absorbed by larger generalizations. The results are the kind of misleading clichés and the exceptionalism that had proved so problematic for the Prairies. Instead, Mandel reversed the question, suggesting that the Prairies are something imagined. “Prairie,” he wrote, means “a sort of complex conceptual framework within which various social inter-relationships can be viewed and understood. It is difficult to keep steadily in mind that ‘prairie’ means nothing more than this, that it is a mental construct, a region of the human mind, a myth.” Although he came close, Mandel never completely jettisoned a relation to physical place, though what he had in mind is fluid rather than fixed, more magic realism than realistic.
Responsive to the stirrings of post-modernism as well as the emergence of social approaches to history that revived an interest in regionalism and folk cultures, ideas such as Mandel’s were significant in a number of ways for thinking about the Prairies. One is that regional identity is not a given but is something that is created—in fiction, stories, poetry, dreams, fantasy, etc. Moreover, rather than the formal conventions of literature, this expression is open to the popular and vernacular forms of the language of everyday experience. Secondly, whereas regionalism had been understood socially as a relation between people and physical space, it could now be imagined if not wholly independent of geography then in a way that was significantly distanced from the overdeterminations of environmental explanation. At the same time, regionalism had been articulated as a relation to a centre, in the case of the Prairies to central Canada. This opposition was both entrenched and hierarchical with consequences for the region that were, at best, problematic. Not least of these was the imposition of cultural standards that lacked relevance to the region’s way of life and tended to be dismissive of it. Within the terms of this discourse, however, this opposition could be deconstructed or reconfigured. In a sense, at a time of change, the question of prairie identity was up for grabs.
As an artist, Thauberger had been asking himself through the 1970s how he could deal with the local subject matter to which he felt so strongly attached. This question cannot be stressed enough. In Saskatchewan, the visual arts had a very different trajectory than writing and literature. Playing out the centre-margin paradigm, much of the art that attracted serious critical attention was strongly informed by high modernist formal abstraction. With a number of other artists in Regina, Thauberger rejected formalism out of hand, yet it was, nevertheless, not clear how to make art about where you lived. In the visual arts, regionalism carried associations from the 1930s of an insular, politically naive kind of populism. During this time, he made a number of ceramic tableaux theatres with the false fronts common to prairie architecture. Infused with the humour and distortions of Funk art, these pieces worked well on their own terms but lacked a larger conceptual scope or potential. He also worked on a series of paintings and prints with repeating patterns of motifs sourced from popular imagery. Related to Pop art, the sensibility of these works was strongly vernacular but they were not addressed to place.
It is well known that the considerable tradition of folk art in Saskatchewan and, in particular, both the artists’ integral relationship to where they lived and their commitment to making it the basis of their art, were crucial factors in Thauberger’s own direction as an artist at this time. In some respects, he was able to see the province through the work of these artists. During this period he also became acquainted with Mandel, who returned to the province in 1978 as writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library. Looking back, although literature was the focus of debates about the Prairies and its identity, it was a discourse that was equally applicable to visual representation. Passionately engaged with the province, informed by its history, affirmative and proactive rather than defensive, imaginatively rich and open, and concerned with staking out terms for art that was timely, relevant, bold, and of consequence, it is a discussion that spoke directly to many of Thauberger’s most important concerns and ambitions. Significantly, it is also a discussion that was not trapped in the old truisms about the prairie landscape and all it had come to represent.
Thauberger’s Saskatchewan paintings are foremost a vehicle to explore and represent the world of his own experience. Part of this was generational. Born after the war, he grew up during better, or at the least less challenging, times than the preceding ones. It was also a period when modernisation led not only to a more outward looking perspective, but also to the rise of large-scale agriculture at the expense of the traditional family farm and the shift of population to the city of which Thauberger was to be a part. This was a very different experience than those described by Ross and Stegner. Where they had seen struggle and purposelessness in a thankless landscape, with the distance of time it was possible to recognize the achievement of a society that sustained a meaningful life even during the most trying times and to value the building blocks that made this possible. In addition to expectations scaled to circumstances, these included, notably, an agricultural economy supported by a long-standing structure of economic co-operatives and pooling; a comprehensive network of grain elevators in towns closely spaced along rail lines; the services of the towns and larger urban hubs; and the particularly strong social dynamics of this pattern of inter-dependence.Significantly, what conventional representations could not acknowledge was the depth of the affective bonds of community and place this life had fostered.
Among the first Saskatchewan paintings is Farm Painting (1978; cat. 12), based on the Thauberger family farm outside Holdfast. In it the land is rolling rather than flat and the beautiful sunlit landscape with its big blue sky and puffy white clouds is balanced by the house, barn, and storage building that form a triangle in the painting’s middle ground. It is a picture of harmony between rural society and nature expressive of a very secure, not to mention serene, sense of place. A second work made that year, Grandfather’s Painting (cat. 14), is both more specific and more dramatic. Depicting a massive work horse towering in profile over the same farm house, the painting links family history and place in a way that is emphatically imaginative. The imagination, of course, is that of a child and psychologically identifies the painting’s point of view with the adult’s larger-than-life memories and impressions of where he grew up.
Time in Grandfather’s Painting is not self-evident. The painting refers to the past—it has literally been inscribed with memory—but its perspective is clearly located in the present. Though not as explicit in all of Thauberger’s Saskatchewan paintings, this temporal flux is always present. It builds duration and even a suggestion of narrative into this work. Every image has a story. This sense of time also distinguishes these paintings from documentation or realism and objectifies the nostalgia they might otherwise simply evoke. These properties are achieved by other means as well. The paintings are aggressively anti-naturalistic. Realized through enhancement and manipulation, they are as relatable to printmaking and mechanical forms of commercial reproduction as they are to the traditions of painting. Thauberger uses masking tape to lay out forms. Airbrush as well as combs, toothbrushes, even salt shakers and plastic condiment bottles have been used to create highlights and texture. Acrylic paint is smoothly applied leaving no evidence of its application. The colours themselves are pure, giving the work a strong reference to popular print culture. Over the years Thauberger has drawn heavily on the Letraset catalogue for lettering, signage, foliage, and other incidental detail, and he has used glitter generously to literally make his paintings sparkle. Techniques such as these are completely undisguised and, indeed, are intended to make the work formally congruent with its cultural sources and subject matter. At the same time, the compositions are straightforward. Most often there is a large, flattened central image paralleling the picture plane that looks as if it could be a cut-out. These images are set back to varying degrees from the foreground and positioned against backgrounds that have been simplified through selective editing. The effect has been compared to a theatrical proscenium and also contributes to the narrative implications of the work. Like the Pop art that informs them, attention in these works is concentrated on the image. Unlike much Pop art, however, there is no suspicion that the exercise may simply be a formal one, or any question that the banality of the images is what makes them interesting.
Farm Painting and Grandfather’s Painting are works that speak particularly to origins and emotional connection to place. Most of Thauberger’s Saskatchewan paintings, however, are about the lived experience of place with a focus on the built environment, expressly the intersection of architectural form and social function. Perhaps the most obvious of these are the paintings of flat front buildings. These structures are associated with the false front buildings of the early American West but were common throughout the Canadian Prairies as well. Though considered crude as architecture, they ingeniously combined available materials with functionality. Their façades, which could be extended vertically to a second floor, were impressive in appearance and created an illusion of permanence. They also were an ideal surface for the display of signage or advertising and, on streets exposed to the sun with no trees, they provided shade. As an adaptation to location, the façade made an asset of limitations, a metaphor for the experience Thauberger is representing.
Thauberger’s flat front buildings are not always true false fronts but their general plans and façades are a close relation, which cite both a location and a history. What makes them significant is not just their efficiency, but the desires involved in their aesthetic ambitions. In Bread and Butter (1980; cat. 17), for example, Thauberger took the simple loaf-like shape of a rural welding shop and using contrasting tones of yellow and the geometries of the doors and windows patterned across its frontage underscored the inherent beauty of the building’s stripped-down design. Like the buildings in many of these paintings, this one’s rectilinear outline is sharpened and emblematized by the combination of the open prairie backdrop and the clarity of light that surrounds it. On the other hand, the visual logic of White Hall (1981; cat. 22), a structure also derived from the false front model, is based on its deceptive scale and the unadorned purity of its all-white surfaces. The result is monumentality and even a suggestion of timeless authority. Not timeless, but that is the point, the false fronts in Dennis Café (2001; cat. 46), register change, relating what appears to have been a town’s vital past to what also appears to be a present that is in transition to an uncertain future.
Like the building in White Hall, many of Thauberger’s Saskatchewan paintings depict the places where people meet, interact, or play. Among the latter are Green and White Painting (1978; cat. 13), and Rainbow Danceland (1979; cat. 15). In both, architecturally significant vernacular buildings that had survived into the present instantiate the social life and tastes of an earlier era. Both are extraordinary as reflections upon a world that was long gone by the time they were painted, but what is perhaps most remarkable about them is their signifying power. Even while taking such an enchanted stroll down memory lane, there is no question for the viewer that the point here is less the enchantment than the works’ significance as memory.
Another theme that Thauberger has pursued in this work is the social ideals that domestic residences represent. Although the paintings begin with modest starters and include some character homes that are architecturally idiosyncratic, the heights of the social register are never approached. Rather, these paintings concentrate on what had become Saskatchewan’s predominant urban middle class. The familiar houses of North American post-war suburban culture, these homes are portraits of the realization of the widely shared aspiration to enjoy a comfortable life in attractive surroundings. In one sense what is interesting about them is that there is nothing about them that is distinctive, something that is only amplified by the small variations in their decorative touches. At the same time, however, they reflect a society that under new economic circumstances continued to be structured more horizontally than vertically.
This body of work also includes paintings of a number of public buildings and churches. The former include All That Glitter (1980; fig.), and Urban Perspective (1990; cat. 34). With its rippling horizontal façade, the office building in All That Glitter is perfectly integrated into its prairie locale. The corporate headquarters of SaskPower, one of Saskatchewan’s most important crown corporations, it is the brilliant design of Regina architect Joe Pettick, whose conception drew on the Spanish modernist architect Antonio Gaudi’s use of vernacular forms and materials. Lit up dramatically against a dark night sky, in Thauberger’s painting the building reads as a distinctly Saskatchewan urban landmark. Few buildings can have this kind of symbolic clout. The juxtaposition of classical revival and generic modern in Urban Perspective, however, embodies not only the history but also what for the most part has remained the modest physical scale of Saskatchewan’s urban development. Towering churches may not have been quite as common as grain elevators in the Saskatchewan landscape, but they were commonly the focal points of rural towns. Disproportionate in size to the built environment surrounding them, they are a measure of what has been the centrality of religious life in this society. In a painting like Unorthodox Church (1997; cat. 43), they are also an indication not only of the province’s significant population of Ukrainian heritage but that Saskatchewan has been largely shaped socially by immigration.
In an essay some years ago, Gerald Friesen, author of The Canadian Prairies: A History (1984), still the major general history of the region, claimed that the Prairies no longer exist and need to be re-imagined. According to Friesen, the old images have been rendered not only obsolete but also misleading by the massive restructuring of life on the Prairies. Rather than a region based on the geography and physical character of three provinces, Friesen sees a West of four provinces each with its own political and economic culture. Friesen’s was a step that has evolved and been refined further by other realities. Both the time-space compressions of globalization and the rise of diverse group identities unrelated to geography have undercut regional and even local affiliations. In recent years the term ‘post-Prairies’ has gained considerable currency. Yet as the Saskatchewan historian Bill Waiser has asked, what does it mean to re-imagine if the original images were based on misplaced premises?
David Thauberger’s Saskatchewan paintings have been a response to those premises. If they have created an extraordinary picture of the Saskatchewan prairie, it is important to appreciate just how groundbreaking they were. They are paintings in which a Saskatchewan audience could recognize the world it inhabited and a national one could be challenged to re-think its understanding of the province. As for the question of the post-Prairies, witness a painting like Two Towers (2004; cat. 50), a juxtaposition of a grain elevator in its traditional iconic form and a contemporary version, industrialized, expanded, and fitted out for today’s world markets and technologies. Leave it to Thauberger to start looking at grain elevators after a career of judiciously keeping them at a distance. But then, his real game has always been the play of history.
1 D. H. Bocking, ed., Saskatchewan: A Pictorial History (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979), 191.
2 Curtis R. McManus, Happyland: A History of the “Dirty Thirties” in Saskatchewan, 1914–1937 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011).
3 Quoted in John Herd Thomspon, Forging the Prairie West, (Toronto: Oxford, 1998), 126.
4 Holdfast: History and Heritage (Holdfast: Holdfast History and Heritage Committee, 1980), 34.
5 See the chapter “Western Realism: 1880–1940″ in R. Douglas Francis, Images of the West (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979), 155-92, for a discussion and selection of this material.
6 “Western Realism,” 162.
7 See Pamela Banting, “Deconstructing the Politics of Location: The Problem of Setting in Prairie Fiction and Non-fiction,” in Sue Sorensen, ed., West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2008), 52-53 for a discussion of this question.
8 Arthur Adamson, “Identity Through Metaphor: An Approach to the Question of Regionalism in Canadian Literature,” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne 5:1 (1980), 92.
9 Eli Mandel, “Images of Prairie Man,” in Richard Allen, A Region of the Mind: Interpreting the Canadian Plains (Regina: Canadian Plains Centre, 1973), 202-03.
10 Thauberger was among the first to recognize the significance of Saskatchewan’s folk art. It was through his involvement with artists, collecting, and public advocacy that this work became known and culturally valued. For excellent discussions of Thauberger’s formation as an artist, including his relationship to folk art, see both Nancy Tousley, “Putting Things in Place: David Thauberger’s Vernacular Style,” in David Thauberger: Paintings 1978-1988 (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1988), 7-25, and Michael D. Hall, “David Thauberger and the Art of Genuine of Simulation,” in David Thauberger: The Moose Jaw Pictures (Moose Jaw: Moose Jaw Art Museum and Art Gallery, 2002), 5-16.
11 Numbers of writers have associated a sense of place with the memories of childhood. In “Images of Prairie Man,” Eli Mandel suggests that regionalism is the memory of childhood. In a newspaper article in 1979, Thauberger is quoted, “Subliminally or subconsciously, the Prairies are what I want to paint because that’s where I grew up.” Quoted in Holdfast: History and Heritage, 317.
12 Nancy Tousley, 20.
13 Green and White Painting and Rainbow Danceland depict Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw and Danceland in the resort town of Manitou Beach respectively. Temple Gardens was closed when Thauberger painted it and was demolished the following year. Danceland has operated continuously since it was built in 1928. In a case of life imitating art, not long after Thauberger painted Rainbow Danceland the distinctive rainbow from the painting was added to the building’s façade.
14 Friesen’s essay “Defining the Prairies: Why the Prairies Don’t Exist” is discussed by Bill Waiser in his essay, “Introduction: Place, Process, and the New Prairie Realities,” The Canadian Historical Review 84:4 (2003), 509.
Regionalism has always been a central topic of discussion in the literature on David Thauberger. The artist himself has often emphasized the role personal experience and the lived environment play in his art profession. Considering an exhibition of his work at the Dunlop Art Gallery in 1983, Thauberger remarked, “Just living in Saskatchewan from 1950 to 1980—that’s really what these paintings are about.”1 This essay explores regionalism both as it relates to the communities and artistic circles within which Thauberger was a part and how it has informed and operates thematically within his work.
I will briefly situate the entry of “regionalism” into Canadian art historical discourse, before turning to examine and compare the regionalist attitudes that developed among artists in London and Regina during the 1960s and 1970s. For Thauberger and his Regina peers, regionalism did not denote isolationism; indeed, it was as a result of important connections that he made outside Regina that Thauberger participated in Pluralities 1980, an exhibition of contemporary Canadian art that garnered him his first national exposure. Through the 1980s, as the artist earned more critical attention, writers became increasingly attuned to the complex way in which the idea of regionalism surfaces in Thauberger’s practice, particularly in relation to the technological proliferation of mass media and popular culture. This essay concludes by considering the relentless collisions that are enacted by his work: between signifiers of the real and the imagined, local and global material culture, and between direct and vicarious experience. I propose that these collisions highlight an unsettling ambivalence that lies at the core of Thauberger’s regionalism. It is an ambivalence that is often mitigated by, or goes unnoticed as a result of, grounding interpretation on the artist’s personal experience of place. It is an aspect we should work to restore, and recognize in it Thauberger attending to the subject of regionalism itself.
Regionalism is a notoriously slippery concept. For detractors it is synonymous with parochialism and small-mindedness; for advocates, the word proudly denotes a particular self-conscious cultural identity rooted in history and geography. The term is also one that has been broadly applied. It features as prominently in the world of political science and economics as it does among artistic and literary circles. The term ‘regionalism’ was introduced into Canadian art historical discourse by curators and art historians writing in the 1960s and 1970s about certain strains of artistic production in southern Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes in the 1930s and 1940s.2 It was not always applied consistently. As Victoria Nixon has shown, on some occasions regionalism was framed as a “stylistic category,” one that Canadian artists developed in reference to the quotidian rural, and sometimes urban, scenes of slightly older American artists like Charles Sheeler, Charles Burchfield, and Thomas Hart Benton. At other times, the term was used to denote the intimate “response” artists reveal through their art to their immediate environment,3 “the land as it looks after Canadians have tilled it, lived by it, and died in it,” as the critic Graham McInnes wrote in 1937.4
As a result of varying and imprecise usage, regionalism has been imputed to Carl Schaefer’s agrarian landscapes of the Hanover region, the modernist-infused paintings of André Biéler, Jack Humphrey, and John Lyman, and the scenes of lament and human protest made against the backdrop of the Depression and the mounting spectre of war by artists like Miller Brittan and Charles Comfort (fig. ). Interestingly, survey texts have tended to neglect the manifestation of regionalism in Western Canadian art during this period. The Prairie-based artists that have featured prominently, such as W.J. Phillips and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, were generally not discussed in terms of regionalism, despite the their works’ focused commitment to their immediate natural and social environments.
In the 1960s and 1970s, at the very moment regionalism was being historicized by academics and curators, artists in several locales across the country were embracing the term along distinctly contemporary lines. A circle of painters, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, musicians, and social activists working in and around London, Ontario, in the 1960s is generally credited as being the first to recognize “the dynamics of local culture,” and to mobilize regional resources toward creating art of trans-regional significance.5 Individuals like Jack Chambers, Murray Favro, John Boyle and, most importantly, Greg Curnoe (fig. ) undertook creative and collaborative projects that mined local lore and history, as well as “the nitty-gritty particulars of everyday life.”6 They self-published magazines featuring the work of local artists, writers, and poets, operated cooperative galleries, staged subversive performances, and advocated for artists’ legal rights. For this group, regionalism also served as a tactical position from which to resist what they regarded as the stultifying and diluted replication of international Modernism, especially in Toronto, promulgated from New York by figureheads like critic Clement Greenberg. While the London artists were themselves aware of and drawn to other international movements, particularly that of British Pop and neo-Dada, and indeed embraced a central tenant of Baudelarian Modernism in their pledge to overcome the divide between art and ordinary life, they turned these resources to personal ends, actively imbuing them with home-grown particularity.
In the second-half of the 1960s, a group of Regina-based ceramic artists working in and around what was then that city’s University of Saskatchewan campus had begun following many of the same principles guiding artists in London. David Thauberger, Victor Cicansky, Ann James, Marilyn Levine, Russell Yuristy, Joe Fafard, and, for a brief period, the American David Gilhooly incorporated humour, anti-elitism, commonplace locally sourced subject matter, and undervalued materials into their work. Like the Londoners, they did so, in part, as a form of conscious resistance to “New York-style internationalism,” epitomized in their case by the Regina Five. Issues other than just artistic style, however, were also at stake. Even more than the work the Regina Five produced, Thauberger and his peers resented the degree to which the legacy of Kenneth Lochhead, Arthur McKay, Douglas Morton, Ted Godwin, and Ronald Bloore, most of whom had moved from Saskatchewan by the mid-1960s, had been parlayed by others at the university into a “closed-minded and closed-ended” attitude “about what art is.”7
Regardless of what they shared, London and Regina did not run on identical conceptions of regionalism. Dialogue between artists from the two cities was scant; however, one surviving anecdote reveals a crucial point of mutual departure. Speaking in Regina in the 1970s, Greg Curnoe is reported to have questioned the regional loyalties of the city’s ceramicists, positing that they simply traded one foreign taste-maker for another, Clement Greenberg for David Gilhooly.8 While the California Funk artist’s influence in Regina is legendary, it does not speak to subservience. More simply, it just illustrates the insouciance with which Thauberger and his peers partook in creative fellowship and mentorship with artists from other locales, especially those in the American Midwest and West Coast. Thauberger’s art, his early ceramic work as well as the paintings and prints that he began producing in 1973, communes openly with “Californians and mid-Westerners,” from Wayne Thiebaud to Roger Brown.9 Moreover, one London-based writer has suggested that, in spite of the almost anarchist irreverence that fuelled the London scene at its height, a “hierarchical mode of transmission” became apparent when artists from that city began moving to outlying “colonies” in Southwestern Ontario, such as Hamilton and St. Catharines.10 Thauberger and the Regina group practiced a pragmatic and egalitarian form of regionalism, one that was compatible with a continental outlook. They displayed a committed interest in creative and intellectual exchange, not only with larger hubs like Chicago or San Francisco, but with more proximal regional centres as well.
One example of this occurred in the 1970s when the Regina artists began creating prints at the artist-run Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop (GWCSS) in Winnipeg. Aptly named to suggest the regionalist values guiding its institutional initiatives, the GWCSS opened as The Screen Shop in 1968, before being incorporated in 1973. It went on to earn a national reputation as a gathering space where artists could acquire technical training and knowledge of the screen-printing process through informal apprenticeship.11 Its founder and chief printmaker, William (Bill) Lobchuk (fig. ), was an active advocate for artists’ rights, both locally and nationally. He publicly and persistently disputed what he described as the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s “policy that it be primarily concerned with [being a] showcase of international art rather than its responsibility to local artists,” and he held key positions with the national non-profit artist-led advocacy organization Canadian Artists’ Representation throughout the decade.12
The GWCSS “imposed” no “aesthetic standards.”13 Nonetheless, work by a number of the artists who figure prominently in its history reveals a close kinship in the use of regional themes and subject matter, among them Thauberger, his Regina peers, and Winnipeg artists, including Lobchuk, E.J. (Ted) Howorth, and Don Proch (fig. ). In 1978 and 1980, the GWCSS produced two folios, The Great Western Canadian Series 78 and Series 80, pairing limited editions prints by Regina artists like Thauberger with their Winnipeg colleagues. The two-venue exhibition The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: A Print Legend at Winnipeg’s Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre and the University of Manitoba’s Gallery 1.1.1. in 1983 helps to corroborate Thauberger`s sense that certain artists in Regina and Winnipeg were “speaking the same language and heading in a similar direction.”14 The exhibition included six serigraphs Thauberger produced at the screen shop between 1977 (the first year he worked there) and 1981, including Black Velvet Bunnies (1977; cat. 55), Dolly & Bill (1979; cat. 56), and Icon (1981; cat. 60). The accompanying exhibition catalogue, in addition to unbound reproductions of works in the exhibition, includes the contents of a 1972 Winnipeg Free Tribune article covering a confrontation at the Winnipeg Art Gallery between its Board and a number of GWCSS artists, and an account of the GWCSS’s genesis playfully written in mock biblical prose. The scrapbook sensibility of this catalogue goes some distance in underlining the informal, cheeky, and cooperative atmosphere of the GWCSS, and in showing that it was a community that spanned regions.
A copy of a personal letter from Philip Fry (fig.), curator of contemporary art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 1970 to 1973 and an early supporter of the GWCSS, to his parents appears in the same exhibition catalogue. In the correspondence, dated November 31, 1970, Fry conveys his preference for prints being made at the screen shop that show “a strong, almost folksy local feeling,” and “seem to deal with something real and alive.”15 Fry, who met David Thauberger in 1974 after the former had left Winnipeg for Ottawa, would be instrumental in bringing the artist national exposure for the first time, in the summer of 1980. As one of the four guest curators of the National Gallery of Canada exhibition Pluralities 1980, Fry selected Thauberger with two other GWCSS regulars, Fafard and Proch, for inclusion, along with Stephen Cruise and Alex Wyse.16 One of the stated intentions of Pluralities 1980 was to chart a migration in artistic consciousness in Canada away from the medium specificity of Modernism, illustrating the way in which “the sacred houses occupied by traditional forms have increasingly opened their doors” to the extent that their contents now “constitute a commune of cross-reference.”17 Thauberger was represented by nine paintings, including Crystal Palace (1979; cat. 16), all displaying what are now his familiar tendencies, namely the compositional tropes and materials of Prairie folk art as well as imagery appropriated from postcards, calendars, and other commercial sources. In the exhibition catalogue, Jessica Bradley notes that his work “affectionately, if not ironically, [embraces] a visual language beyond the accredited mainstream of fine art.”18
Pluralities 1980 was conceived, in part, to confirm the ascendancy of postmodern strategies of art production within the Canadian art world. Thauberger’s “affectionate, if not [ironic]” regionalist scenes were interpreted by the curators and organizers as exemplifying a dimension of this condition. However, critical reception was not entirely positive. Russell Keziere, then editor of Vancouver-based Vanguard magazine, describes it as an “ill conceived group exhibition…masquerading behind a posture of courageous and eclectic Post Modernism [sic].”19 After identifying a number of broader conditions working against the exhibition—the institutional tepidity of the National Gallery of Canada and an ingrained dysfunction between artists and curators across the country— Keziere turns to the exhibition’s contents, setting his sights first on the work of Thauberger, Fafard, and Wyse. All three, he writes, “set out to do something other than what their curator wants them to do,” the latter being to “force a criticism of Modernism.” Without furthering his claim, Keziere goes on to broadly dismiss what he regards these artists as having “set out to do,” judging the end result of their mixing “realism, folk motifs, regionalism, and personal idiosyncrasy” as “homely,” “whimsical,” and “difficult to dislike.”20 Keziere’s particular dissatisfaction with Thauberger centres on what he perceives to be the artist’s regionalist impulses, his “attempts to evoke a sense of his environment” through a subject matter of “harvest fields, Mounties, ponds, farms and animals.”21
In 1980, Thauberger was not yet a household name and, while they suggest disinterest, Keziere’s comments also simply betray lack of familiarity with the artist’s work. His characterization of regionalism as an attempt “to evoke a sense of his environment” raises the question of how the concept was applied to Thauberger’s practice after 1980. As Timothy Long has shown elsewhere, beginning in the 1970s, regionalism was subject to “a number of articulations and revisions” by figures like Eli Mandel and Bruce Ferguson, both of whom wrote extensively on Thauberger and his Regina peers.22 In the 1980s, curators and critics like Peter White, Nancy Tousley, and John Bentley Mays drew focus to the artist’s interest in “the wider transformations of society by technology and popular culture.”23 They were among the first to argue that such an interest complicated the artist’s regionalist aspirations —that is, to make art about “living in Saskatchewan”—but did not contradict them. If we understand regionalist art to be based on artists’ honest responses to being where they live or come from, then we must acknowledge that, as Mays succinctly puts it, “being there also means continually receiving information about the world beyond via mass media.”24
Thauberger’s regionalism springs from a collision between the local and the world-out-there. This collision unfolds between works: in an obvious way between, for instance, his paintings of bungalow façades titled with real estate catch-phrases, such as Dream Home (Ethnic Version) (1980; cat. 19), and those depicting global wonders and tourist destinations, as in Some Acid Rain (1985; cat. 29). The artist paints the domestic and the sublime with the same brush, but whereas the result monumentalizes the former, it demystifies the latter. This collision also transpires within singular works. We can see this most clearly in an image like Mack’s Garage (1991; cat. 35), which plays on the dissonance between the particularity of “Mack” and the multinational abstraction that is the Shell Oil Company. More generally, the clash erupts at a formal and a material level throughout his entire oeuvre, between his commercial- and folk-inspired deployment of glitter, spatter, and stencils, on the one hand, and his homage through scale, composition, and sometimes subject matter to paragons of French Modernism like Monet and Seurat.
By the late 1980s, the idea that Thauberger’s “prairie” was “not the utopia of agrarian imagination, but a site of exchange between the rural community and global electronic totality” had become the consensus view.25 It endures as a convincing account of Thauberger’s practice. However, where I think more emphasis needs to be placed is on the implications lying on the other side of artistic intention. There is a tendency to want to re-stabilize the radical collisions that are presented between the local and the global in Thauberger’s art by ultimately grounding interpretation in the artist’s “tenderness of feeling” for “the quotidian experience of place.”26 But this merely serves to privatize meaning in Thauberger’s imagery, when it is abundantly evident that what he achieves is much more impersonal and detached. More attention should be paid to the way in which Thauberger makes “regionalism itself”—Tousely’s phrase—a subject of painterly discourse.27 Viewing his art through such a lens would help to place the unflinching ambivalence his work has for the idea of regionalism in stark relief.
Collisions unfold between the local and the global within and among Thauberger’s works—between lived experience and vicarious simulacrum, grandfather’s house and pixelated postcards, dream homes and acid rain. These collisions, not their absence, are what forge a sense of regional identity. Ambivalence results because, for us, these collisions are irreversible and structurally indivisible. As Peter White reflects, “it is difficult to contemplate a contemporary wheat field … apart from the modern technologies that inevitably support it.”28 We cannot access an Arcadian locality before the advent of globalization; we cannot even begin to imagine what that would mean. And in the same way, we cannot experience the global except through how it is manifest as a local particular. His art pulls us in competing directions, between purely unmediated and purely mediated experience, revealing both to be unknowable abstractions. David Thauberger paints the collision not so that we can put things back together, but to show us that we are, and always have been, immersed in it.
1 Margaret Hryniuk, “Paintings Deal with Life in Saskatchewan,” Leader-Post (Regina), 21 April 1983, B1.
2 See especially J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1966), 325-341; Charles C. Hill, Painting in Canada in the Thirties (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1975).
3 Virginia Nixon, “The Concept of ‘Regionalism’ in Canadian Art History,” Journal of Canadian Art History vol. 10, no.1 (1987): 30-40.
4 Graham McInnes, “New Horizons in Canadian Art,” New Frontier vol. 2, no.2, June 1937, 19-20.
5 Dot Tuer, “‘What if daily life in Canada is boring?’: Contextualizing Greg Curnoe’s Regionalism,” Fuse vol. 24, no. 3, September 2001, 13. Audiences continentally were first made aware of the London art scene in the fall 1969, when Barry Lord’s article “What London, Ontario, Has that Everywhere Else Needs” was published in Art in America.
6 Sarah Milroy, “Greg Curnoe: Time Machines,” Greg Curnoe: Life & Stuff (Toronto and Vancouver: Art Gallery of Ontario and Douglas & McIntyre, 2001), 34.
7 John Bentley Mays, “Will the Real Mr. Thauberger Please Stand Up,” Globe and Mail, 11 August 1980, E11.
8 Timothy Long, “Regina Clay: Worlds in the Making,” Regina Clay: Worlds in the Making (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2005), 34.
9 Robert Enright, “The Second Generation: Fourteen Saskatchewan Painters,” Canadian Art, vol. 2, no. 4, Winter 1985, 84.
10 Chris Dewdney, “Oregionalism: Geocentrism and the Notion of Originality,” in Provincial Essays: Geocentrism and the Notion of Originality, vol. 1, no. 1, ed. Jennifer Oille (Toronto: Phacops Publishing Society at the Coach House Press, 1984), 9.
11 Angela E. Davis, The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: Printing, People, and History (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1992), 37-43.
12 “WAG icebreaker runs aground,” Winnipeg Free Tribune, 15 June 1972, 2. See also, The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: A Print Legend (Winnipeg: The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop, 1983). Lobchuk’s archives are held at the University of Regina.
13 The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: A Print Legend.
14 David Thauberger, email to author, 5 December 2013.
15 The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: A Print Legend.
16 The other curators were Willard Holme, Allan MacKay, and Chantal Pontbriand. The remaining artists included in the exhibition were Mowry Baden, Ian Baxter, Pierre Boogaerts, Roland Brener, Max Dean, General Idea, John McEwen, Claude Mongrain, Roland Poulin, Rober Racine, Jeff Wall, and Mia Westerlund. See Pluralities 1980 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1980). Planned originally to comprise the work of twenty artists, with each guest curator selecting five participants, the number dropped to nineteen when George Trakas pulled out. See Robert Handforth, “Pluralities/1980/Pluralities,” artscanada nos. 238 and 239, December 1980 and January 1981, 35-39.
17 Jessica Bradley, “Introduction,” Pluralities 1980 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1980), 9.
18 Bradley, 14.
19 Russell Keziere, “Ambivalence, Ambition and Administration,” Vanguard, September 1980, 8.
20 Keziere, 8-9.
21 Keziere, 9.
22 Long, 39-40. See for example, Eli Mandel, “Images of Prairie Man,” A Region of the Mind: Interpreting the Western Canadian Plains, ed. Richard Allen (Regina: Canadian Plains Studies Centre, 1973), 201-209; “A Comprehensible World: The Work of Cicansky, Thauberger, Yuristy, and Fafard,” artscanada 36, October- November 1979,15-19; Bruce W. Ferguson, Victor Cicansky: Clay Sculpture (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1983).
23 Long, 39-40.
24 John Bentley Mays, “A Hard-Eyed Look Beyond Landscape,” Globe and Mail, 19 November 1983, E5.
25 John Bentley Mays, “David Thauberger’s Cheek now Feels More Like Chic,” Globe and Mail, 12 April 1989, A13.
26 Nancy Tousley, “David Thauberger: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints,” Parachute, Spring 1981, 47.
27 Nancy Tousley, “Putting Things in Place: David Thauberger’s Vernacular Style,” David Thauberger: Paintings, 1978-1988 (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1988), 25.
28 Peter White, “Popular Myths/Cultural Realities,” David Thauberger: Paintings, 1978-1988 (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1988), 37.
Inventive, collaborative, experimental, and social aptly describe David Thauberger’s printmaking spirit, vision, approaches and results. Constantly stretching boundaries of techniques and materials to achieve his conceived images, Thauberger admits he is not a technician. Rather, he has the vision and ideas and continually challenges print shop colleagues to test the new. The results are exciting. Prints are unquestionably an integral aspect of his art. Thauberger’s determination to achieve what seemed impossible changed printmaking by his continuing experiments with materials new to the medium. While Thauberger’s prints expanded the norms of artistic processes, his subject matter remains close to home, everyday places and ordinary elements of life. The communal aspect of making prints enhances that human essence.
This essay developed from a lively three-way conversation with the artist, the author and Bill Lobchuk, founder of the Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop.1 In our conversation Thauberger stressed: “Prints are accessible to all and give the opportunity of owning art to a wide general public, not just arts’ patrons or the upper echelons of society and those in the artistic know.” Lobchuk added:
Prints are like social art. You can do it yourself and/or collaborate. They are for a market of people who may, or do, appreciate art but cannot afford paintings. It has a democratic involvement, for as multiples many can have them. Prints challenge the rarefied notion of art, in the creating, the looking, owning and engaging.
Thauberger launched his printmaking career in 1977 at the Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop in the middle of an intoxicating time when printmaking vied with painting and sculpture as a primary art-making method. To art historian Angela Davis “printmaking became the ‘rebellious’ technique in a socially rebellious time.”2 Canada was thriving economically, and societal traditions were being tested. It was an era of renewed feminism, political debate and exponential growth of galleries, artist-run spaces, cooperatives and funding programs. In “a period of experimentation and social encounter, both in art and everyday life,” the Screen Shop was “the place where art, technology and communication could meet.” Recognizing the democracy of prints Davis continues: “The print is uniquely capable of becoming . . . an inexpensive bridge to an understanding of the wealth of visual expression in Canadian art. . . . This was the aspect of printmaking that would make the new art form so important.”3
Bill Lobchuk met David Thauberger in Regina through artist Joe Fafard. He invited Thauberger to join Manitoba artists and those from Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Montreal (including John Greer, Pierre Ayot and Glenn Lewis) in a two-year Screen Shop initiative to create prints for the Canada Council Art Bank. Lobchuk “felt Thauberger would really work well in printing.” Having this work in the Art Bank’s collection heightened both the national significance of western artists and silkscreening as a printmaking medium.
For Thauberger a new creative interest was ignited. “With Bill Lobchuk I got interested in prints and printmaking. I got looking at the work of other printmakers and started to collect, acquiring examples of artists I admired and works of various techniques. I was learning. This was my prime education; I still buy.” He admits it was a considerable financial outlay but as his brother commented: “Education costs money!” Through collecting, looking, reading and working with master printers at the Screen Shop and Vancouver’s New Leaf Editions, he gained an almost unparalleled knowledge of prints. His considerable personal collection includes pieces by David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and major contemporary American and British artists: “Many of these artists have stayed at the forefront of my thinking about art and I have tried to collect something by these as a way to access their working/thinking process and as inspiration for my own art making.”4
Silkscreen prints were Thauberger’s primary printmaking focus from 1977 to 1997. With Lobchuk and Len Anthony, the Screen Shop’s stencil cutter and master printer, he experimented with inventive techniques, adding new dimensions to tradition. After the Screen Shop closed in 1987 Thauberger continued printing with Anthony. “Len lived and printed in an old hardware store on the side of the highway in the country at Ladywood Manitoba . . . a very primitive affair—no heating, no plumbing—basic electricity and power.”5 He also printed with Jan Boning at Omniscreen. Lobchuk continued to assist both at Ladywood and Omniscreen.
Thauberger liked silkscreen’s bold, distinct colours and crisp linear definitions, appropriate for his iconic vernacular images. He tried innovative materials—velvet, flocking, antique marbleized papers, Letraset and enamels. He often over-painted the printed image in his 1990s etchings and aquatints and sometimes incorporated computer or photographic images into the print itself.
Thauberger’s interest in pattern was evident in his early prints, including Velvet Bunnies (1977; cat. 54), Hook, Line and Sinker (1978; fig.), and Cocks (1978; fig.). In creating Cocks, he worked with nineteenth-century images from a poultry catalogue. The feather patterns intrigued him. He did Cocks photographically, drew into the image and finally flipped it. The resulting ‘accidental’ reversed image when on the light table fascinated him, inspiring him to create other works with mirrored or reversed images, including Dolly & Bill (1979; cat. 56).
Thauberger frequently uses multiples of one image within a single work, like the rabbits in Velvet Bunnies. Later, he repeated particular images in various lights and times of day, for example, McCargar’s Print (1980; cat. 58), and McCargar’s Print (Day) (1981; cat. 59). These two prints are “based on a singular image of a prairie grain elevator that was a motif for the Saskatchewan folk artist W. C. McCargar. That particular elevator I used in the print was based on the one which my father operated as an agent in the 1970s.”6 Using this image in painting “I realized that with a different aesthetic and approach I could create an image in multiple which is completely different.” The different moods of the two prints are evident—one black and white, a chilling winter night; the other, green and pink, emanating summer heat.
Texture was equally important to Thauberger and in 1977 he began testing textural possibilities of materials. The conversational repartee between Lobchuk and Thauberger revealed their continuing excitement of his quest to print on velvet. New, velvet printing posed conundrums in achieving the mutually incompatible goals of flatness and texture. A “crazy idea,” Lobchuk said, “if he wants to print on velvet, let’s try it.” Thauberger recounted: “I was interested in what it was that so many people found so attractive in the ‘black velvet’ aesthetic and wanted to see if there wasn’t something positive to take from these commonly disparaged (in art circles) paintings that were everywhere.”7
Velvet Bunnies was done both in black on white velvet and in white on black velvet. Lobchuk and Thauberger mirthfully recall the first attempts at the velvet prints as “unsuccessful.” The inks when printed on velvet were “too crumbly and unable to achieve the desired flatness, impossible because the nap changed direction with the light. The velvet moved and stretched as it was being printed. We could not print multiple colours and finally resorted to hand colouring!” Printing on velvet for Thauberger was “the toughest. It was a steep learning curve!” In the end, these works were successful; the black version “magic.” It was installed on a dowel like a banner, not framed like a print.
Next, Thauberger undertook the challenge of flocking, Lobchuk’s idea, noting “it was the age of popular flocked wallpapers.” Lobchuk acknowledges: “Thauberger was the best flocker we had.” Anthony recalls flocking, not generally associated with printing, as being “simple . . . we bought flocking in bulk, sprinkled it on the wet paint, and shook loose bits off to use another time.8 Thauberger’s flocked prints include Dolly & Bill, Icon (1981; cat. 60), and Double Feature (1982; cat. 61).
Thauberger pushed in yet another pioneering direction—flocking on antique marbleized paper. He had a pile of hand-marbled antique papers from New York that he had cleaned, fixed and trimmed. He used them for the New York images, Manhattan I (fig.) and Manhattan II (cat. 68, 69), done at Anthony’s studio in 1989. Thauberger remembers flocking in the antechamber. These works “were perfect . . . they got the full effect I was imagining.” Lobchuk added, “It was a first too! The texture was there!”
Thauberger also wanted to achieve shadow effects. Applying colours and flocking over ground layers of enamel gave the effect of siding on farm buildings. This physicality from the thicker paints attained his desired shadows, Double Feature, 1982, being a prime example. These forays with texture added detail, precision and a sense of reality. Anthony particularly liked the results in Peppermint House and Chocolate House (both 1986; cat. 64, 65), feeling that Thauberger’s building works “were among his finest,” recalling that Thauberger “did the lawn by dragging a comb through the wet paint for the striations of the grass.”9
Other inventive approaches included bronzing varnish, which Anthony noted few artists used. Applied in thick layers, it created further depth and shadows. Thauberger often added metallic powders. He also used Letraset innovatively in his prints, as the trees in Little Christmas (1984; cat. 63) and Bungalow (1989; cat. 67). When printing a colour in Bungalow in Ladywood, “a thunderstorm blew up and knocked the power out. We debated for a few minutes and finally decided to continue to finish the already started colour-run—the first and only time I ever printed in the dark!”10 For Thauberger Letraset provided “warmer imagery than present-day clip art. That from the US was better than the French variety.”
Thauberger was part of the two special Screen Shop portfolios of 1978 and 1980. Bill Lobchuk, Don Proch and Tony Tascona from Winnipeg, and Joe Fafard, David Thauberger and Russ Yursity from Regina, were in the first. Winnipeg’s Chris Finn and Regina’s Vic Cicansky joined the second. These were made
to reach a wider market and more collectors. We wanted to prove that we could produce and market our own work. The first, an edition of 75, was great. We reached our goal (to sell enough sets to cover the cost of production) and were in profit mode before production was completed. We subsequently sold the entire edition. We felt heady! So we conceived the second inviting two more artists and doing an edition of 150. Egos got in the way and we made our costs but no more!
Hilarity characterizes their reminiscences, portraying a place of true artistic collaboration and this vibrant Winnipeg social centre. “We clicked. People were speaking the same language and heading in the same direction from similar experiences in art and life. It was the prairie and about the prairie. We all understood that.” Lobchuk added: “We were all country boys in the city.” Thauberger eloquently rejoindered: “We were all experimenting and witnessing experimentation. I found it useful and helpful to be part of artists engaging. People would come by to see who’s here and look and talk. We met people from other communities and this paid off with exhibitions of our work in other centres—Winnipeg, Regina, Montreal.”
Of his Winnipeg printing ventures Thauberger said:
Working at the Screen shop was always an adventure. I would come three times a year, spring, summer and fall, each time for a week or ten days. I always came with an idea in mind, but it was vague. I came to discover. I didn’t know the printing part—that is why I came. I was not the technician. When making the prints I was the racker! Chris Finn did the grunge work. That gave me time to look and look, to develop ideas and the process. I was continually building up ideas and forms. They were always evolving. I was open to experimentation and development, from conception to finish. We put in good hours.
Lobchuk added: “David was one of the best. He always asked the impossible. Sometimes we said it couldn’t be done, but he was determined, so most of the time we figured out how. Thauberger was relentless. He wanted to print four colours a day. That was impossible!” But for Thauberger: “I was paying for living expenses, hotel and production costs and wanted to work as efficiently and as quickly as possible.”
They collectively succeeded in “breaking the barriers of the ‘hierarchy’ in the traditional art world. Prints had become a legitimate art form in contemporary Canadian art and was widely recognized as such,” Thauberger being instrumental in breaking some of the norms.
Were the results what the artist expected? While the final print may have been different from his initial expectation, he always returned to Regina pleased. Lobchuk concludes: “David pushed the envelope of graphic prints. He got into it more than most. The Screen Shop had to suppress its own aesthetic and work with the artist— it was a communal thing. David’s work looks different from the rest—there is no similarity with the prints of the other artists.” Thauberger commented: “To make it work you have to be able to connect and engage.” He was excited by their willingness to experiment with mixing materials.
In the early 1990s Thauberger visited Vancouver’s New Leaf Editions and met printer and owner Peter Braune. Thauberger was interested in the etchings they were doing; Braune was interested in the depth of questions Thauberger asked— “He knew what to ask.”11 Braune had seen and loved the velvet paintings and prints. Thauberger did a number of etchings at New Leaf Editions, salvaging some small deeply etched unfinished plates, including Ghost Red (1993; cat. 71), and Danceland (fetish) (1995; cat. 72). Braune talks about “their really good friendship,” dining out, doing a menu and special prints for a Vancouver restaurant, going to junk shows, and Thauberger “forcing him to listen to country music while making prints.”12 Like Lobchuk, Braune said “some things David wanted I had not done before, like photo stuff and some combinations of techniques. They were not difficult and we found a way and they worked. We also did lots of chine collé and aquatints. ”13 For Braune, “printing techniques are a tool, printmakers use the technology and should ask ‘How do I make it do what I want?’”14
Thauberger’s prints are neither preliminary nor auxiliary to his paintings, but independent works of art, each created with a specific vision and idea. He acknow!ledges that silkscreening informed his painting:
I learned the importance of tightening up my painting—the image and registration. Prints had to consider the borders of the paper and accurate drawing is vital. That became important to my painting. . . . Thinking the technical process through was completely different than with painting . . . thinking in terms of producing multiples . . . perhaps the biggest barrier of all was realizing that no matter how hard we tried, these were never going to look like paintings . . . . I had to adjust my expectations . . . . Eventually I came to appreciate the different aesthetic that the prints demanded and to work with them on their own terms . . . prints are just not paintings . . . . This, I realized was a positive thing and I like to think that I was able to adjust my approach when making prints . . . . in fact, the adjustments have had a positive impact on my subsequent paintings . . . so the influence has been both ways.15
Comparing the solo painter’s studio to the communal experimental print shop he says: “While in his painting studio, the artist has the idea and realizes it; in the print shop, the artist has the visual idea and image, which others realize.”
Thauberger’s experimentation and innovation, his aesthetic, and the compatibility of his images to the properties of silkscreening resulted in strong prints. With the help of technicians, he extended the medium to reach his vision— textures, shadows, and relief. Thauberger’s connection was direct and his messages from everyday continue to be relevant, compelling and universally understood.
He talks of returning to printmaking. May he continue to expand the medium!
1 All quotes unless otherwise noted are from the three-way conversation between David Thauberger, Bill Lobchuk and the author, Feb. 11, 2014
2 Angela Davis, The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: Printing, People and History (Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1992), 16.
3 Davis, 16.
4 David Thauberger email to Patricia Bovey, Feb. 13, 2014
5 David Thauberger email to Patricia Bovey, Feb. 15, 2014
6 Thauberger email, Feb. 15, 2014.
7 Thauberger email, Feb. 15, 2014.
8 Len Anthony in conversation with Patricia Bovey, Feb. 13, 2014
9 Anthony, Feb. 13, 2014.
10 Thauberger email, Feb. 15, 2014
11 Peter Braune in conversation with Patricia Bovey, Feb. 13, 2014 12 Braune, Feb.13, 2014.
13 Braune, Feb.13, 2014.
14 Braune, Feb.13, 2014..
15 Thauberger email, Feb. 15, 2014
“. . . the ocean resounding beyond the horizon, sensed but rarely seen, the ocean like the vast prairie he knows so well.”
On my way to the Borden ferry (The Confederation Bridge would not open until 1997) a large effigy of Raggedy Anne waved from the House of International Dolls Museum, a tourist trap. I did not breathe again until across that estuary: algae reeked, exposed by low tide; my foot stepped on the gas—a reflex.
Years later, after I left Prince Edward Island, David Thauberger showed me my aesthetic bias in his gift of Doll House (fig.), a small souvenir painting. The artist had transformed that roadside attraction into a Joseph’s coat of many colours, radiant glass.
Another tourist attraction, Rainbow Valley (1969-2005) featuring a flying-saucer gift shop and a small scale replica of the Anne of Green Gables house, stirred nostalgic memory. But it was Fairyland, the worn-around-the-edges amusement park that merited the first stop of David’s artist-in-residence sojourn in Charlottetown.
He posed for a photograph in the pouch of a large cement kangaroo. I said to myself, this snapshot will last. The following morning we both recovered from sun stroke; the intense light reflected from the waist-deep snow was worse than a tanning salon.
In 1993 the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum held an Atlantic Canada panel discussion titled Scenery and Landscape, which led to a national program. The panel included Cliff Eyland, Susan Gibson Garvey, Henry Purdy, Terry Graff and David Thauberger. The panel discussion concluded Thauberger’s residency on the Island. I had invited David (a gamble, a roll of the dice, as I had only met him once), but we chose him as the first artist in residence for CCAGM because he seemed the ideal candidate to give this ‘Garden of the Gulf’ the light hearted, yet serious commentary needed to reveal the gap between historical landscape and tourism on the Island.
David’s residency drew attention to the CCAGM, involved local artists, and affirmed the mission of the Centre “to celebrate the origins and evolution of Canada as a nation.” The Fathers of Confederation met at Government House, Charlottetown, in 1864. Prince Edward Island was hallowed ground, a microcosm of political Canada, the birthplace of the Nation, an ideal stage for a visiting artist.
Arrivals and departures had defined Island history: garrison officers, itinerant painters, immigrant artists. They ordered a brave new world, and kept wilderness at bay. David landed in this palimpsest-place just as farmers, tourist operators, and retired snowbirds that had fled south for the winter were returning. During those seven weeks in April and May, P.E.I. resembled a ghost town, time frozen. As the smallest province in Canada, population 130,000 year round, tourism swelled the population in the summer months to over one million, or so it was said.
Few would spend seven weeks in a depopulated province, a lukewarm studio bunker, ice blocked beaches. The job required a survivalist, an adventurer with humour, at ease with tourism and history, and an interest in art and architecture, popular culture and high art. David fit the bill. He did not need much, just a studio wall. He shipped canvas, acrylic paints, spray gun and brushes from Regina, and requested only a crate to sit on, a projector, an X-Acto knife. Ben Kinder and Kevin Rice remodelled the bunker studio, and Joe Sherman, poet and editor of ARTSatlantic, rented a room to David, as he often did for visiting artists and writers.
After studio hours, David and I walked historic blocks, the streets of Charlottetown, and on weekends made treks to Georgetown, past Souris to East Point, and west, past Summerside, photographing houses and churches.
We found an incredible architecture of gables, porches, windows and doors, and ascending church spires declaring the spirit of place. The lilt of place names, suggesting patterns of Irish, Scottish, English, and Acadian immigration, captivated us: Tyne Valley, Ellerslie, Hunter River, Kensington, Kinkora, Murray Harbour, Indian River, Red Point, Point Prim, and the beaches—Brackely, Grenwich, Basin Head.
In the folds of the landscape, farm houses seemed refuges, often high on a hill, inland, bright lights in blizzards when snow piled over sills and no one could see out. David was entranced—the omnipresent sea resembled the vast prairie.
While driving the Island we discussed the Regina Five in Saskatchewan, the early ’60s, artists Ken Lochhead and Ron Bloore, cruising the ‘back forty,’ photographing painted barn doors, discovering and encouraging folk artists like Jan Wyers and W.C. McCargar, although those halcyon days celebrating regionalism and nationalism, outsider and high art, had largely passed.
In the second week David demonstrated his behind-the-scenes technique, spraying the sky “Pretty Blue,” then removing masking paper.
Mortified, astonished, I bought the painting on the spot. The canvas depicted a prim property on Water Street near the harbour in Charlottetown, a nineteenth-century cottage, a white architrave of maple leaves, a national symbol, above the entrance.
David is not a shrinking violet with colour, more a bull in the china shop or a scientist in the lab. “Pretty Blue” (fig.) used not one blue, but four, five greens, and a pink, parodying the Lucy Maud Montgomery colour code of commerce in Charlottetown. Areas of the canvas are taped, paint and speckles are brushed onto the surface:
lopsided green bushes and a brown doghouse to the right skew the frontal façade, the Presbyterian symmetry of the porch, the red stairs and immaculate lawn. An overarching gable of branches, stars and crosses crown a too-perfect composition, the formalism of the modernist grid.
The picture shows the artist’s affection for home, sweet home.
David collects the work of Levine Flexhaugh (1918-1974), a Saskatchewan outsider, speed painter of diorama-like scenes: mountains, pellucid lakes, log cabins, waterfalls, bears or deer in meadows. Levine sold pictures from the shoulder of the TransCanada highway near Banff.
David’s strategy on the Island may seem similar at first: a boiling down of form, using colour from the tube, and honing the edges, calibrating, targeting the essential postcard view, searching for ‘spirit of place.’
And Monopoly, a game amassing real estate, reminds me of David’s art, as he seems to collect houses. The Chappell Picture (1993; cat. 37) highlights a time-worn apartment building on Great George Street, designed by architect Charles Chappell (1857-1931).
Here David reinvents the street where I lived: I had strolled past that haggard structure many
times and never seen the ready-made painting waiting there.
An image of a building is a mere starting point for the artist; then begins a kind of meditation in paint, as no one constructs a picture like this artist, layer upon layer, like a mason. A craftsman, David found his métier over twenty years ago.
When snow melted, we played golf at Green Gables in New London, the 1939 Stanley Thompson layout that ran alongside the Parks Canada museum dedicated to Lucy Maud Montgomery and her enchanted woods. David birdied the signature hole.
A painted desk clock commemorates our 1993 round, now in the collection of Regina painter Wilf Perreault, a fine player.
We stood over the Cavendish gravesite of Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942), and later browsed souvenir lobsters: bottle openers, salt and pepper shakers.
David was searching for the perfect P.E.I. red, the special tone and hue he would need later for “Lobster Boy” (1993; cat. 38), the crustacean decorating his Island outbuilding.
Authenticity—historical veracity—does not guarantee beauty. So reproduction rather than originality, easier to comprehend and often truer, may express a better sense of art and life, where we are in time.
And, in the lurid array of outrageous lobsters, row upon row, David’s comments as we walked the aisles convinced me of this bogus bifurcation of kitsch and high art, an overly formalist categorization.
I agreed then that art was a psychological expression of social and economic concerns, and the lobster an undeniable symbol of maritime culture.
As well, the recent capture of a rare blue one, Yves Klein blue, in a New York restaurant tank, trapped by a Maine fisherman, added allure, that day in Cavendish.
Painter Robert Harris (1849-1919) and his brother, the High Victorian architect William Harris (1854-1913), are buried side by side in matching tombs designed by Robert, well back in the St. Peter’s cemetery on the outskirts of Charlottetown. They were remarkable souls who influenced how we view P.E.I. today. A church designed by W.C. Harris burnt to the ground toward the eastern point of the Island—I cannot remember name, place or date, only the foundations remain—a devastating loss of place for that local community. Religion had influenced the vernacular architecture and ecclesiastical buildings of settlement, and as I had hoped, David delved into this cultural phenomenon.
David was enthralled by William Harris’ presentation watercolours. Harris designed over 100 buildings: houses, churches and cathedrals on the Island and in Nova Scotia.
Harris’ structures inspired David’s Gray Church (fig.) and Good Friday (A Drive Around the Island) (fig.), the latter a composite, as David superimposed buildings from different locations to express layered memory and make better paintings.
(Historically, the Victoria lighthouse was transported inland as a museum, and a nineteenth-century Charlottetown church rafted up river to a new home and congregation.)
Other nineteenth-century artists made similar grass-roots expressions of familial faith, tributes to the Island that David saw or absorbed through osmosis. George Ackermann (1803-1891) late in life documented the topography of Summerside and Charlottetown. “Little” Harry Williams built the angelic St. John’s Anglican Church in Ellerslie, past Tyne Valley, a harmonic masterwork of shingles. And from her Redcliffe porch, Fanny Bayfield (1813-1891) painted a garden above Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown.
In David’s painting, a corresponding pre-tourism sentiment: the ocean resounding beyond the horizon, sensed but rarely seen, the ocean like the vast prairie he knows so well.
Now, twenty years later, through empathy and creativity, he is no longer a tourist producing souvenirs of a place he has visited, he has found another home. Today, there are over eighty Prince Edward Island pictures by David Thauberger.
A souvenir (from French, for a remembrance or memory), memento, keepsake, or token of remembrance is an object a person acquires for the memories the owner associates with it.
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