Pioneer of the Prairies: Seeing Western Life Through David Thauberger’s Eyes

By Julie Sobowale on May 02, 2014

David Thauberger, Lake Reflecting Mountains (1982), acrylic, glitter on canvas, 167.6 x 228.6 cm. Private collection

Architecture tells the story of a community, revealing the mood and style of a place through the shapes and colours of its buildings.

David Thauberger often evokes farms and small Prairie towns in his iconic paintings; but there is more to his work than the buildings he paints. The travelling exhibition, David Thauberger: Road Trips & Other Diversionscurrently on view at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoonis the first retrospective for one of Canadas best-known Prairie artists, and features nearly 80 of his works.

The exhibition has been a major project for Sandra Fraser, Associate Curator at the Mendel Art Gallery. She spent three years with Thauberger, working on the exhibition with co-curator Timothy Long, Head Curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. Fraser and Long brought in pieces from private and public collections, and developed interactive features to enhance their presentation of Thaubergers work.

In my conversations with David, I learned that throughout his career he was searching for how to be an original and how to find his own voice, Fraser told NGC Magazine. The experimental search is very important to me. People think of him in a certain way; but I want to expand that and present a broader view of his work.

Thauberger is best known for his paintings of vernacular architecture in his home province of Saskatchewan. These workstwo of which are in the NGCs permanent collectioneloquently capture the feel of small-town life on the Prairies. While many of his Prairie paintings are featured in the exhibition, many of the other works on view reveal Thaubergers evolution as an artist.

David Thauberger, Evil Kneevil Jumps Snake River Canyon (1973), earthenware, glaze, acrylic, metal drive chain, wood, 37 x 37 x 33 cm. Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank

It is somewhat surprising, for example, to learn that Thauberger began his artistic career in ceramics. The witty Evil Kneevil Jumps Snake River Canyon (1973) is typical of his early work. Made of ceramic, acrylic, wood and bicycle chain, it depicts the daredevil’s rainbow trajectory into the bowl of a coffee mug—complete with bald eagle perched on the side.

As his career progressed, Thauberger began to move away from ceramics and learned how to paint. His early paintings focus on repeating motifs and patterns, as well as animal figures. He was exploring different aesthetic problems and the content, says Fraser. He was reacting to abstract art through this work.

Grandfather's Painting (1979) is one of the transitional works marking Thauberger's segue into architectural work. The watercolour shows a traditional Prairie homestead with a massive horse in the foreground, appearing to tower over the building. Although the piece still retains elements of Thaubergers animal-themed art, it also includes a meticulously rendered house.

It was around this time that Thauberger began producing work in the style with which he is most closely associated, with buildings taking centre stage. Signature works from this period include Rainbow Danceland (1979), featuring a colourful dancehall, and At Home (1983), a classical portrait of a house. Although Thauberger paints from photographs, he does not paint in a photo-realistic style, but rather reinterprets photographic images to create his iconic works. This approach is also clear in the exhibitions more recent works, such as Way Out West (2004), which includes a series of picturesque buildings on a wheat farm. 

David Thauberger, Way Out West (2004), acrylic on panel, 60.9 x 91.4 cm. Private Collection

To enhance its presentation of Thauberger's work, the Mendel Art Gallery has developed a dedicated website with video commentary, a short documentary film presented in the exhibition, and an exhibition catalogue. Perhaps the most ambitious initiative, however, is the exhibition app. Using location-awareness technology, visitors will be prompted by beacons located on 12 different works of art to read commentary or watch a video describing the piece.

We wanted to have Davids voice represented in the exhibition, says Fraser. The app is an engaging tool that were trying out for the first time. We want to reach out to as many different people as possible. 

David Thauberger: Road Trips & Other Diversions is on view at the Mendel Art Gallery until June 15, 2014. It will then travel to the Art Gallery of Windsor from June 27 to September 21, 2014; the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina from May 2 to August 23, 2015; the Glenbow Museum in Calgary in Fall 2015; and the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown from March 6 to June 6, 2016.

By Julie Sobowale| May 02, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Julie Sobowale

Julie Sobowale

Julie Sobowale is an arts journalist and editor based in Halifax.

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