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© 2009 Roger Boulet
A Path of Integrity
all: to thine own self be true,
1: The persistence of painting
In September of 1992, Richard Reid was surprised to receive a very complimentary letter from Jack Shadbolt. He mentioned that of the hundreds of invitations the Shadbolts received, he had singled this one because the reproduced work was "a truly interesting looking painting-vaguely Soutine-like in overtone-but completely its own spontaneous self with rich painting and superbly realized color." The letter goes on to say ..."You do good things up there in the Interior" and closes by wishing him .. "continued good painting."
Reid had last met him in 1983 when Shadbolt had been asked to jury the regional exhibition organized by the local arts council in Grand Forks. He had met him many times before then both socially and at visual arts events in the lower mainland. The evidence of Reid`s continued painting activities by then could only be perceived by most in the lower mainland through such invitations and exhibition notices. By 1992, it was astonishing that anyone would notice what was going on in the interior, except those interested in the development of art in British Columbia, in ALL its manifestations, and that evidently included Jack Shadbolt. Reid had by then been in the Interior for over a decade. The state of the visual arts in the lower mainland was largely centred on subsidized artist-run spaces, emerging artists and practices which seldom included painting or other traditional visual arts media.
What had happened? In case anyone had forgotten painting in Vancouver with the emergence of so-called Photo-conceptualism [i.] in Vancouver in the early 1980s, Scott Watson had organized the Young Romantics exhibition for the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1985, the same year that the Art Gallery of Ontario featured its European Iceberg exhibition, the first major exhibition of the German and Italian painters who were the new stars of postmodern art in Europe, including such giants as Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. Their medium of choice was painting. As usual the large institutions in North America, such as the A.G.O. were late in recognizing the shift away from New York, and towards Europe, especially the still-divided city of Berlin where the action seemed to be. Watson's exhibition did not feature superstars of European art, but rather emerging Vancouver artists who chose to paint.[ii.] Their inspiration was clearly to be found in the new European painting, rather than in the established painting tradition practiced by a generation that included Gordon Smith, Jack Shadbolt and Toni Onley (all of whom were British-born), and by Canadian-born painters such as Takao Tanabe and Don Jarvis.
Between these two generations, another one-more or less covering the 1960s and 1970s-dominated to a large extent by pop art and conceptual art making, rather than by painting. This was precisely the period when Richard Reid returned to Vancouver in 1964 after a five year residence abroad.
2: London and Europe
The five years spent living abroad had been very significant for Reid's development. The day after their marriage on 27 February 1960, Richard and Beverley Reid left for Europe with the intent of travelling there for a year. Sailing from New York to Bremerhaven, they claimed their newly-purchased Volkswagen camper in Hannover. It being winter, they immediately travelled south-west to Paris. There they visited museums such as the Louvre and the Musée de l'art moderne, as well as various other tourist attractions, and drove south to the warmth of Nice and the Côte d'Azur. Their objective was to discover the cultural heritage of the west in its monuments and museums, and in its civilized landscape.
Eventually, they found themselves in London where an art-school friend, Bill McPherson, suggested they stay awhile. They rented a flat at 37 Avonmore Road in West Kensington. One tiny bedroom, measuring 9 x 7 feet became Richard's studio. He recalls he was only able to look at his relatively large paintings through a reducing lens. One work, a diptych entitled Red Seductress, over two metres wide, was not really seen by the artist until its two parts were assembled in a London gallery. Reid soon met other resident Canadian artists and became active in the affairs of the Young Commonwealth Artists. These meetings stimulated Reid in the studio. It was then he realized that the time had come to make a commitment to his work and to prove himself as a painter.
of this new consciousness led to a remarkable series of paintings
over the next four years, which were to mark his "coming
of age" as an artist. London, in the early 1960s was
the scene of an emerging cultural renaissance. In his recollection
of this critical time, Reid later recalled:
The Reids were occupied for a couple of months of the year in the making of designs for store windows in London, and the rest of the year was devoted to travelling and painting when possible. Most of Western Europe was covered, with many museums visited in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. One highlight was the better part of a summer spent in Salzburg where Richard took classes with the noted Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, who had been running his Schule des Sehen (School of Seeing) courses in Salzburg since 1953. Kokoschka's goal was to provide an alternative to the prevailing mode of non-objective art. He believed the human figure was central to the long humanistic tradition of visual art. His last year of active teaching was in 1963, when 250 students were present. His classes were nonetheless stimulating, demanding rapid drawing from a live model, always present. Students who produced successful drawings were even provided with a bonbon.
Reid accomplished over five hundred figurative watercolours, and if the figure had haunted his abstract work before this, it established in his mind the legitimacy of the figurative painting that had also been at the forefront of his earlier art student years at the University of Manitoba's School of Art, and was referenced in much of his newer abstract work.[iv.] The summer in Salzburg was followed by an extended stay at the Chateau de Ravenel, 70 km north of Paris, where Reid continued to paint. This extraordinary period of intense activity had been facilitated in part by a Canada Council grant in 1963. [v.]
3: River Road, Richmond, BC
The return to Canada and the west coast took place in the summer of 1964. For the next 7 years, Reid taught art classes for the Vancouver School Board, and also worked part-time in a hardware store. He had made an extensive addition to Beverley's parents' home in Richmond, which included a studio. By 1969, Richard and Beverley had purchased a large home on River Road from B.C. Packers adjacent to that of fellow-artists Ann Kipling and Leonhard Epp, and this also entailed an extensive two-year renovation project.
While this impacted the time he could spend in the studio, Reid actively participated in exhibitions locally. His work was included in the Vancouver Art Gallery's annual exhibitions of 1966 and 1967, and he also exhibited his work at the Griffiths Gallery in Vancouver and the Pandora's Box Gallery in Victoria. It was during this time that he was able to meet socially with a number of the artists in the Vancouver area. He renewed his acquaintance with Toni Onley, whom he had met in London in 1963. Toni even contributed a small text to an exhibition folder of Reid's work at the Griffiths Gallery in 1968, which in part reads: "To be original and true to one's own experience is a very difficult task for the young artist today, when artists are jumping on and off bandwagons as they pass by at an ever increasing rate. To remain aloft is to be lonely, and yet the only painters we can remember out of the great tradition of western art are those lonely individuals.
has concentrated his considerable talents on the one thing that
fascinated him, the transfiguration of images. [...] [His]
works are involved with the transfiguration into landscape of
the human figure, but he differs from other artists of similar
preoccupations in that his works are warmly and invitingly erotic.
In his transfigurations, sex is the underlying force unifying
man, woman, and nature."
Now teaching at the University of British Columbia, Toni Onley invited Reid to join the Department of Fine Arts in 1971. For the next 8 years, Reid worked full-time as an Assistant Professor and from 1975 as Chairman of the BFA program. It was a time of transition. The University sought to employ in all positions artists with terminal degrees. This meant that for the studio courses, an MFA was preferred, and a PhD for art historians. Relatively few of the artists employed in the department at that time had terminal degrees. They had been hired first and foremost as artists of some accomplishment, with an established practice, notwithstanding that teaching positions often sapped much of that practice. Reid did little work during those years, showing primarily in faculty exhibitions at UBC.
Given the changing nature of the art scene, its shift away from the traditional media of drawing and painting, and the preference for artists versed in academic "theory" and terminal degrees, painters in teaching positions were marginalized. Reid mentions an increasing sense of isolation in the lower mainland. The prevailing mantra proclaiming the death of painting was re-enforced by the critical dicta marginalizing anyone at variance with new orthodoxies. The very notion of "instinctual" painting was discredited, and artists like Reid who had expressed a purely aesthetic, spontaneous approach to painting, were regarded as hopelessly out of step. There seemed little point in painting if no one wanted to look at it.
In 1971, Richard and Beverley had purchased a share of an 80-acre property above Christina Lake as a summer getaway. Over the next several summers, they built a summer house there, even though there was no power. The house was built with stacked logs cut with a chainsaw, and mortared together with cement. It was a time when many creative individuals were inspired to go back to the land... and live a life in closer harmony to nature. By 1979, however, the property above Christina Lake offered the possibility of a retreat from UBC politics and an unsympathetic art scene. Richard was almost 50, and was ready for a change which an early "retirement" offered. At the end of the semester, Richard and Beverley moved to Christina Lake. They kept the Richmond property for another four years until the maintenance of both properties became impossible. The sale of the Richmond property in 1983 meant a permanent move to Christina Lake.
The move implied a radical change of life. The property's isolation required a considerable degree of self-sufficiency, such as the cutting and preparation of firewood for the winter, the ongoing maintenance of a one kilometre access road to the house, the creation of a garden for fruit and vegetables, etc. There was very little time for painting. Richard continued to work at various times as an instructor with the Emily Carr College of Art and Design's Outreach Program in the form of the "Printmobile." What the Reids missed most were the cultural amenities they had enjoyed in the Vancouver area. Gradual involvement in the activities of the local Arts Council led to another creative endeavour for the Reids: this was to become the Grand Forks Art Gallery. With the support of volunteers, Beverley and Richard set up the gallery in the unoccupied basement of the Library in 1984. For the first five years, Beverley took an active role as (volunteer) curator of the gallery while Richard was its (volunteer) director. From the start, the vision and standards they set for the Gallery singled it out among similar endeavours elsewhere in the interior. Not merely content to exhibit and sell the works of local artists, the Reids organized exhibitions of contemporary work, drawing on their network of friends and acquaintances in western Canada.
At the same time, painting was still very much on Richard's mind, and he sought the catalyzing environment of the Emma Lake Artists workshops for 5 consecutive summers (1985-89). The company of artists who persisted in the practice of painting and sculpture was a tremendous stimulus. The purchase of a boarded up old store in Grand Forks provided further stimulus and a retreat of sorts, where the activity of painting could be pursued in the necessary solitude. Exhibitions were held, including a retrospective held at the Grand Forks Art Gallery (1989), an exhibition focused on the London paintings at the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan (1996) and more recently (2006) another exhibition at the Grand Forks Art Gallery. The letter received from Jack Shadbolt in 1992 seemed like an affirming recognition of sorts.
The present exhibition at the Kootenay Gallery of Art, selected by Helen Sebelius, is also a retrospective of sorts with a leitmotif of Reid's long standing interest in the figure. Ms. Sebelius has also selected a number of self-portraits painted by the artist at various stages of his life and career, and these certainly provide hints to the artist's approaches and consistent painterly preoccupations over time.
The paintings and prints themselves are certainly evocative of the sensuousness expressed by the artist in the words cited earlier in this essay. Reid continues to demonstrate a great love for painting, not only as a medium, but as a tradition glimpsed through his visits to great museums. The artist has mentioned the earlier influences of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) and other painters of the New York school. But the influence of older masters is also evident, with the considerable impact of the Spanish masters (Velásquez, Zurbarán and Goya) seen at the Prado and El Greco seen at Toledo, not to mention other painters such as Franz Hals and Rembrandt.
The paintings continue to bear witness to this great humanistic tradition and make no attempt to be anything other than what they are. What we see may be at variance with prevailing trends and artistic fashions of today where "theory" generates visual art and professional advancement. Reid's paintings continue to provide that sensuous pleasure for the eye, a vicarious participation in the artist's intense pleasure with the materials at hand, and the passion inspired by the presence of the figure and nature itself. The warmth implied by such an encounter and Reid's unwavering commitment to the limitless possibilities of applied pigments affirms the persistent creativity of the human spirit.
[ii. The painters included in the Young Romantics exhibition were Graham Gillmore, Angela Grossman, Attila Richard Lukacs, Vicky Marshall, Philippe Raphanel, Charles Rea, Derek Root and Mina Totino. All of them were recent graduates of Emily Carr College of Art and Design (1979 to 1985) with the exception of Philippe Raphanel who had graduated from the Ecole national de l'art appliqué in Paris in 1978, and had emigrated to Canada in 1981.
[iii. Reid, Richard. "Remembering
Britain and Europe in the early 1960s" In Boulet,
Roger. Richard Reid: The London Paintings, 1960-64. Penticton:
Art Gallery of the South Okanagan, 1996.
[iv. Another significant creative period had occurred in San Miguel de Allende for the first six months in 1957, where he first became interested in the work of the Abstract Expressionists.
[v. The artist also received Canada Council awards in 1964 and 1967.