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Remembering Gerald Humen

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The following text is the speaking presentation by local artist David McIntosh at the Opening Reception of the exhibition "Remembering Gerald Humen" on Friday, March 6, 2015.


"It is my privilege to spend a few minutes talking to you about Gerald Humen and his work. I never managed to meet him. I saw the work we’ve displayed here for the first time last fall. I knew right away there was something fascinating and very enlightening to explore. Great art opens itself to interpretation and I felt invited.

Many of you here did meet Gerald while he was at the Manor from about 2005 until he died last year. You may remember his booming voice, or his love of port. You may have glimpsed, like sudden sunlight, the strong, fun-loving, generous younger man whose whole life was art. A few of you may have even been privy in conversation to his consuming dedication to his practice and to art in general.

This evening we are trying to re-experience a little of Gerald Humen. We have music; we have food; we have port – in short, we have a party. Gerald loved parties; he would definitely approve!

Gerald Humen was born in the Ukraine in 1935. He came to Canada in 1946 and he attended the Ontario College of Art in the fifties. After graduating, he was part of the spirit of the sixties in Toronto. Old rules were laid aside in the name of energizing and enriching the place of visual art in society.

Gerald was an explorer by nature; his subject changed with his passion for his natural surroundings. He saw beauty and wonder in all living things: trees, flowers, rocks, the human form, water, clouds in the sky -- he worked with them all. His work, whether landscape, skies, or the nude human form, has a meticulous tenderness about it, a loving pursuit of the essence of what he was seeing. A Toronto gallerist in the 1970’s said he worked in the tradition of JMW Turner (of the 19th century) and Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley of the 20th. He pursued the Sublime.

We have as part of this exhibition, and available for you to look through, some photos of Gerald’s work in his hey-day in the 60’s and 70’s, and gallery invitations and newspaper clippings from that time. We also have a video copy of a film made by the CBC program The Journal, called The Opening. It’s the story of an exhibition Gerald had at the Danielli Gallery in Toronto in 1975. Fair to say, I think, the works in this exhibition (all 70 of them) were at the height of his career.

Much of Humen’s work was in black and white, ink or paint on canvas or paper.

In a simplification that is nonetheless accurate, we could say that an artist aiming to create impact has three basic tools: form, colour, and the material he’s working with.

Form is basically the shape of things. A skilled artist can use it to evoke emotion and to stir the senses – you can hear the wind in the grass, smell the woods, and so on.

Gerald sought power in his work through form. In the Daneilli show, he introduced colour in a minimal way and very much in a supporting way. The paintings were of clouds and many were large. With his meticulous rendering of form, supported by blended, low-key yellows, oranges and browns, he created images of divine tumult.

There were many who likened the power of the work to paintings of the Creation by artists centuries ago.

I want to dedicate the rest of my talk to the work we see around us this evening. It covers the period 2009-2014, 28 works in all, all of it created at the Manor, and more than half of it from 2009/10.

We have tried to sum it up with the three pieces we have here on the title wall.

You can see how much he focusses on form over colour. #2 (2009) is very reminiscent of his work from nature at the height of his career. You can see his efforts to capture the essence of what he is seeing. As in, what am I really seeing? As in, light, matter, and air.

He captures individual elements (a leaf, a grainy surface on a rock, a ripple in the water) in a way that makes us focus on the effect of the whole. This is his relationship with form: seeing the collective effect and the contributing individual elements, at once.

Looking at all this work, I couldn’t help thinking of Henri Matisse in his final days, confined to bed as he was: the so-called cutouts he did, simplified yet powerful renderings of form and colour – plant forms, figurative forms, etc, assembled in compelling ways. Until his death in 1954, the greatest artist of the 20th century to many, including myself, spent 7 decades exploring the nature of form and colour, and how they could be married to create the illusion of space; and, he never stopped.

By the time he arrived in Bancroft from Toronto Gerald Humen had lost his legs. He was confined to a wheel chair, and he was in failing health. Yet he continued his dedication to achieving more and more from the rendering of form alone, or form with just enough subordinate colour. His celebration of form is in every one of these works, and so is the tragedy of his confinement and decline. Against #2, #1 and #3 (2011 and 2012), may seem coarse – the attention to the individual mark is much diminished but it is still there in the surface.

The same can be seen in the seven pieces behind me and to my immediate left (north wall). They are all derived from nature. Gerald was enthralled by it. He had a big rock he took everywhere he moved to; his books were full of pressed flowers and leaves.

You can see how dominant his sense of form continues to be and how he is no longer able to treat it as tenderly. Imagine how it must have been for a robust, hard-living man to be so confined. Imagine how the force in the work, such as in #6 or #10, with their upward-to-the-right thrusting movement might reflect this.

On the east and south walls, we have grouped black and whites from 2009 and 2010. The first group of 4 is figurative with a kind of landscape background. There is great vigour in these. The individual shapes (figures) are simple; but, their interaction is complex. Again the individual in tandem with the collective.

The second group of 4 looks like waterfalls. The individual mark-making depicts land and water; the robust shapes they compose register the power of falling water, the power of the whole.

Look at the tree form in the second from the right on the south wall, the individual marks, one for each leaf, so impeccably rendered; the whole adds up to the canopy of the tree but it could just as well be a cloud of bees, alive and swarming. Astonishing!

For the sake of providing some colour in our presentation, we have included 2 colour pieces on the east wall, and one on the south wall. So, they are not part of what I just talked about. Rather, the 2 (east wall) especially, both from 2012, speak directly to the Sublime and are referential, if anything, to Gerald’s skies of 1975.

In the final 3 pieces, on the west wall, we have tried again to sum up his work at the Manor, and this time to bring it to rest serenely on top of his whole career.

The 2009 black and white is similar to several others from that year, but the pure strength of the forms is greater. Perhaps you can now see where #1 on the title wall (2011) may have come from in the painting of two years previous. The underlying basic forms are quite similar though the subject matter is different.

The second piece is from 2013, one of only two we have from that year, a simple landscape, almost cloud-like. The individual details are gone; the rough, black horizontal lines have replaced them in a foreboding way.

The final piece is the only one we have from 2014. Perhaps it is the last piece of work Gerald Humen ever did, I don’t know. It reads, at first, as a kind of landscape,

until you go back and look at the big cloud paintings of 1975. It is as if the sublime, as it did for Turner 170 years ago, turned from being the engine of his passion to being his final destination.

Gerald Humen died at the Manor in May 2015. A great art spirit had returned home."

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News and information of a general nature concerning the Art Gallery of Bancroft will be published here. Gift Shop news, upcoming shows and openings, workshops and artists tidbits.


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