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Shades of Kurelek 3

Since May the Archivist has been suggesting where within popular culture one might find unconscious homage to the work of the Canadian artist William Kurelek. In pointing out a shared preoccupation (between the works of Kurelek and the Chapman brothers) or an accidental resonance (in the animations of Gerald Scarfe), he certainly has not meant to propose an actual train of causation. Still less does he wish to do anything other this month than point up a playful strategy that is common to Kurelek and Martin Handford, the illustrator of – wait for it – Where’s Wally? (known as Where’s Waldo? in North America).

Many will be familiar with the crowded scenes within which the bespectacled, distinctively-dressed Wally / Waldo character awaits detection. Solving the puzzle demands patient commitment on the part of the viewer. Visitors to William Kurelek: The Messenger, currently on show at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, would be well advised to adopt a similar approach to many of his pictures. For Kurelek was a master of trompe-l’oeil and was possessed of a visual memory that was retentive of detail. He often deliberately placed details in his works that he knew might be missed by the unobserv ant. The man in the crowd who points to the bomb in the picture highlighted last month is difficult to spot; and so is the man standing unengaged by his surroundings and holding a crown of thorns in Light Trading Day, Toronto Stock Exchange (1971). In painting scenes from his troubled youth, Kurelek often depicts himself as easily overlooked; but in other works the hidden figure is Christ. In Farm Scene Outside Toronto, his nail-pierced hands and crown of thorns lie discarded among other items at the bottom of a farmer’s field. In the Autumn of Life (pictured below) he is suspended on a tree to the near left of picture, only just visible but apparently ignored by the group posing for a photograph outside the family home in the centre of picture. It is worth adding that Kurelek painted many natural and human landscapes of moving intensity which contained no sub-text or hidden message.

Yet in cases where Kurelek adopted this Where’s Wally? strategy, more than playfulness appeared to be at work. He wanted his works to repay careful study, and was prepared to accept the consequence that they might remain opaque to, or be misunderstood by, the casual observer. More than that, his view of reality was that it remained hidden, in part or in whole, to the majority of his fellows. His ambition was to reveal it, in its light as well as in its darkness, but not in such a way as to rob it of all its mystery and majesty.