Greg Curnoe was a Canadian painter active from the 1960s until his tragic death in 1992. His work was guided by a raw engagement with materials—strongly resembling the Neo-Dada movements taking place in New York and Paris—and the idea of pursuing regional themes and establishing a supportive regional network for artists. To this end, he was a beloved figure in his London, Ontario community and did much to further the interests of the city’s artists, as a co-founder of publications, artist-run centres, the Nihilist Spasm Band, and CARFAC, an organization devoted to standardizing the compensation for artists. His paintings often employed figures drawn from popular culture, modern political history and his immediate community, and his assemblages were often made out of everyday stuff—cardboard boxes, newspapers and magazines.

 

In late 2016, thanks to the work of Jim Shedden and Jesse Brossoit, and with the permission of Sheila Curnoe and the Art Gallery of Ontario, I began work on the digital restoration of Greg Curnoe’s films Connexions, No Movie and Sowesto. This work remains underway at the time of my writing this. These films present a fascinating and difficult translation between media, fixed, like much of Curnoe’s work, in the technology of the home movie, with the slipping gate of the 8mm film camera and crude, double-system sound recording, and all efforts are being taken to maintain these qualities, as the films would have been seen when they were made and as Curnoe’s aesthetic sensibilities would dictate.

 

 

 5   Greg Curnoe                 No Movie

 

No Movie (1965) was Curnoe’s first finished film, made at roughly the same time that his friend and fellow Londoner Jack Chambers began making films. Curnoe’s interest in filmmaking could well have come from any number of sources, but it is likely that the idea of filmmaking among artists was something he encountered at Av Isaacs’ gallery in Toronto. The Isaacs Gallery held a film showing in 1964, a mix of simple, funny Neo-Dada ‘skit’ films and works of a broader underground. The show included films made by the artists that the gallery represented, including Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Graham Coughtry and other young painters who had emerged from Toronto’s Gerrard Street Village, as well as professional filmmakers such as Al Sens and Arthur Lipsett. By this time, many of the Isaacs artists had fallen under the influence of Dada scholar Michelle Sanouillet, whose bookstore, Librairie Française, was a gathering place of this community. Sanouillet, who had edited the first collection of Marcel Duchamp’s writings, Marchand du sel (Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1959), and whose interests in Dada were not strictly historical, might have been struck by the common gestures resounding in the emerging Neo-Dada, in New York, Paris, and by the early 1960s, Ontario. Sanouillet was a great champion of Curnoe, giving a talk at the London Public Library and Art Museum on the occasion of Curnoe’s first solo show in 1961 and writing about him in Canadian Art, and while those Toronto artists interested in Dada would move in other directions, including abstraction and minimalism, Curnoe and others in the London scene carried on the disfigurative collage of Dada.

 

 

6   Greg Curnoe                 Connexions

 

 

No Movie begins with a crowd of bathers marching out of the sea, followed by an extended shot of an eel battling a cephalopod. As the camera follows the violent confrontation, the image cuts to a closeup on the tentacles of a large octopus, and we see the eel turning itself into a knot, eventually resolving this, untangling into a steady curve. This material has no thematic resonance with what is to follow. With this prelude over, the film returns to the bathers, who become the film’s Greek Chorus, a recurring transition between the coming scenes. No Movie was, in keeping with Curnoe’s regionalist sensibilities, a community effort, announced early on when Curnoe holds a card up to cover his eyes, the card announcing “The Nihilist Party Of London —>—>—> Presents.” This in turn leads to an image of the title printed on a circle, sticking out of a woman’s bikini. From this point onward, a series of diaristic sequences are shown, reportage of events held in London, each announced with an ornate title card, held up to the camera by the bathers. Though their clothes and locations change as the film continues, the tableau format of their interstices remains. The film is silent, and the events that play out—a banquet, a music performance, a picnic, a lacrosse game—have the character of the home movie, in which subjects mug for the camera, they pose and smile, they compete with each other for focus or demur. The images are roughly fixed together with visible splices, and the gate of the camera slips with the regularity of a home movie.

Greg Curnoe appears in compositions regularly, suggesting that, as a community effort, the film was made by passing the camera around among the group. Some words are shot and joined for emphasis, e.g. ‘Nihilist’ and ‘Picnic’, in an event banner written in Curnoe’s characteristic stencil lettering, in black on red, the dominant tones of the film. The subjects include adults, families and pets, and occasional punctuations show not only the bathers but also military airplanes performing maneuvers. This is in keeping with a prominent obsession of Curnoe’s paintings, the history of flight and the forms of air vehicles, from fighter planes to dirigibles. The final image pans up the front of a figure, to the word ‘NO’ stencilled on their shirt.

No Movie bears many of Curnoe’s declarations about the idea of Nihilism as it supports his art, an insistence on nothing, a refusal of meaning and of conventions. Even as it resembles a home movie, and surely its purpose was as a communal self-portrait, No Movie also rejects the idea of ‘movie’ itself. This is no movie, it bears no conventions, vague structures that lead to misdirections (in the interruptions of the planes), and it embraces the particularity of the amateur film. That these faces today appear to us as largely anonymous, like the faces of any family’s home movie, is not necessarily by the design of Curnoe, who has gathered these particular faces under the sign of London Regionalism. But Curnoe believed that the use of immediate experience, like the use images bearing contemporaneous, contextual relevance, as in his paintings of boxers and politicians, was the mission of art, not to assign and argue meaning but to make, to render. It is a natural consequence of that belief that in time, work that depicts a particular fading memory will achieve anonymity, which gives the record new complexities. 

In Connexions (1970), Greg Curnoe describes on the soundtrack, in a fluent series of observations, his relationships and the connection of his experience to the places he, his friends and his family have lived. The image is dominated by London, Ontario street photography that Curnoe took while traveling through the city by car to document the significant landmarks of his life. This footage is bridged with other digressions, to events, parties, family gatherings, and portraits of his friends, for instance, of Jack Chambers in his studio. Curnoe’s narration shows his character, a stream-of-consciousness that is humble, sweet natured, amused by memories, pleased by the recitation of names and streets, further pleased by the accumulation of his observations, where one anecdote leads to another. The start-stop mechanism of the tape recorder betrays shifts in tone and speed of voice, with abrasive interruptions to clarify statements, dubbed later by Curnoe to correct facts he had misspoken on the first pass. At times the overdubbed narration causes the original narration to truncate, fragments of earlier sentences sounding at the end of his clarifying statements. The narration is not composed, but emerges from the immediacy of observation, and it is not careless so much as it is willfully unrehearsed and unpolished. The image skips hurriedly from one composition to another, the shots gathered spontaneously, loosely composed or uncomposed (as in shots taken out of the window of a car). Curnoe laughs and observes “it’s too fast now,” as he tries to match the speed of his description to the images. This, taken with Curnoe’s technical explanation at the film’s outset of the differing speeds of his camera and recorder, make the film a technological experiment in the truest sense, the maker’s speed as a narrator competing with the speed of his camera.

The final moments of the film focus on London’s Victoria Hospital, a subject of paintings that both Curnoe and Chambers were making at the time, and Westminster Hospital, the name of which is lettered on its lawn to Curnoe’s great pleasure. As he looks at the Westminster Hospital grounds, with its declarative lettering, Curnoe says, ”There are so many connections in this film, I’ve only talked about a few of them.” He goes on to say a few more names, with quick digressions to clarify his relationship to them, the spare facts that he recalls in the moment that define their roles in his life.

Connexions assumes the form that memory takes, not merely in its autobiographical content but in the palimpsest of Curnoe’s narration, correcting, revising, to get the record down accurately. It recalls a statement Curnoe made to Chambers in the latter’s portrait of Curnoe, R34 (1968): “I’m putting the whole thing together.” In this sense, what Curnoe does in filmmaking is much like his work in assemblage and painting, the act of assembling mirrored to the mental processes of forming ideas, statements, actions, or specifically in the case of Connexions, recollections. The undisguised act of his interrupting voice, correcting his statements of names and places, has this quality, of laying down one account and then revising it, refining it, making a whole from component parts. Connexions, more than any of Curnoe’s other films, it embraces the particular subject—marking this face, this street, this home, as a citation that is personal and individual.

 

 

Stephen Broomer