Unheralded Artists of BC, book 2

The life and art of Frank Molnar, Jack Hardman, LeRoy Jensen. Eve Lazarus, Claudia Cornwall, Wendy Newbold Patterson; introduction by Max Wyman. Mother Tongue Publishing, 2009.

Last post I said I planned to review the individual books in a series of monographs entitled “Unheralded Artists of BC” as I worked my way through them.  I’ve now read the first three, and I think it makes more sense to start my reviews with the second book in the series. The second book differs from the others in that it describes the work and lives of three artists, while the other five books each cover one. Starting with the second book will allow me to focus less on individual particulars of the artists’ lives (you can, and should, read the books for that) and write more generally about the series itself.

The books are visually quite impressive. The images of the artworks give you a real sense of what these artists were about, and the historical photos add a lot to the context. Having a certain bias, I tend to think the visual content in art books is generally the most important part. My overall evaluation so far is that the three books I’ve read succeed admirably in what they set out to do, calling our attention to a number of artists whose works did not get wide exposure during their lifetimes and may now be unjustly cruising toward oblivion.

The second book in the series contains three essays covering, respectively, the sculptor/printmaker Jack Hardman and the painters Leroy Jensen and Frank Molnar. Each essay was written by a different author. Despite that, there is a unity of tone and treatment throughout all three essays.

In part that may be due to what the artists had in common. All three began as modernists, building upon varied approaches to painting and sculpture that grew out of the many modern art movements that flourished in early 20th century Europe. Hardman and Jensen began their careers in the 1950s and had some early success; Molnar began a bit later, in the early 60s. However, by the mid-late 1960s all of them were struggling. Their work, and the assumptions that it was based on, were increasingly seen as dated by the cultural gatekeepers of the day, and they  had difficulty showing and selling their work, or (in the case of the sculptors) getting commissions.

To editorialize a bit, it’s generally acknowledged that shifting tastes in the 1960s art world had the net effect of elevating ideas in art at the expense of craft. Up to the 1950s or thereabouts craft skill – like, for example, a basic ability to draw – was still seen by most as a prerequisite to serious art making. There were some early 20th century movements that deprecated craft skill, but the devaluation really began to go mainstream in the 1950s with the rise of Abstract Expressionism,  and the tendency gained momentum with advent of Pop and Conceptualism in the 1960s. Yet all  three of these artists sought in different ways to retain a craft basis for their art, which put them at odds with the prevailing fashions.

By the 1970s two of them had got day jobs; Molnar as an art instructor at Capilano College and Hardman as the first director of the Burnaby Art Gallery. It’s unclear what Jensen was doing for money during this period, but there are references to sailing around the Georgia Strait in a home-built boat so he must have had some resources. It appears that Molnar and Jensen did reasonably well over the years, but unfortunately  Hardman had health problems and lost his directorship in the early 80s. All three continued to make paintings, prints and sculpture despite not being widely exhibited.

If I have one criticism of the books, it’s that the authors spend a little too much time lamenting the artists’ lack of public recognition and assigning blame (various combinations of local philistinism, in-group cliqueishness, bad luck, and art world politics). The authors are all personally connected to their subjects, one way and another, and some times the sense of injustice is a bit too palpable. But a certain amount of this kind of positioning is probably necessary, and it does offer an interesting counterpoint to the dominant narratives of this period. This is what history looks like when it isn’t written by the victors.

And I do have to acknowledge that one of the collective fascinations of these books are the questions they raise around inclusion and exclusion. Why are some artists fêted by our cultural institutions, and others ignored? The answers aren’t always obvious. The books I’ve read so far don’t settle the matter completely, and maybe no one can. But they do ask the question, and that’s valuable in itself.

More importantly, they capture aspects of our local cultural history that deserve to be recorded, and they do it in a non-academic style that I think does justice to the  nature of these artists’ enterprise. Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in the topic.

They appeal to me for another reason as well. I wrote not that long ago about the possibility of constructing histories that differ from the official consensus, and darned if these folks aren’t doing exactly that. I’ll probably have more to say along these lines when I get to reviewing the other books.

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