Alexandra Luke, Static Triad (date unknown), oil on masonite, 124.5 x 83.8 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Heather Hughes
“Mavericks and groundbreakers.” That’s how Virginia Eichhorn characterizes both William Ronald (1926–1998) and Alexandra Luke (1901–1967), the two artists who are the focus of a namesake exhibition currently on view at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario.
Ronald and Luke were members of the Painters Eleven, an influential group that has been described as the pioneer movement of Modernism in Canada. In 1952, Luke organized the Canadian Abstract Painters exhibition. It was the first national exhibition of abstract painting, and led to the creation of the Painters Eleven, whose eventual formation in 1953 was driven largely by Ronald.
Speaking about the impact of the Painters Eleven during a recent interview with NGC Magazine, Eichhorn, Director and Chief Curator of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, says that they created “another contemporary Canadian artistic vocabulary.” But the Gallery’s exhibition of Ronald and Luke’s work not only celebrates what two members of this renowned group respectively achieved as artists — it also aims to provide a fuller picture that connects with who they were as people.
William Ronald, Two Nudes (1962), oil on canvas, 119.4 x 226 cm. Courtesy of Christopher Cutts Gallery. Photo: Heather Hughes
Ronald was known as “this colourful, larger-than-life” character, says Eichhorn. However, during a visit to the home of the late artist’s former wife, Helen Ronald, Eichhorn had a chance to experience Ronald’s paintings alongside photos depicting him as a caring father and grandfather. That encounter, in addition to discovering that Rosemary McLeese — Alexandra Luke’s granddaughter — was a resident of the Owen Sound area, prompted Eichhorn to organize an exhibition that would explore the respective influence of family in Ronald’s and Luke’s artistic practices.
As Eichhorn notes, “family” is something that is often “underplayed in discussions about artists and their work,” and how they are able to succeed, or are challenged, as a result. William Ronald and Alexandra Luke also retains a familial feeling of intimacy and domesticity, as all the works on view are ones that were kept by family members, and many have never before been seen by a wider audience.
Featuring 27 paintings and watercolours, the exhibition showcases a range of early and later works by both artists. That includes Two Nudes, a 1962 figurative work by Ronald, as well as Last Painting, his final work from 1998. Ronald experienced a heart attack while painting it, then passed away a few days later in Barrie, Ontario. The painting is, as Eichhorn says, “absolutely, profoundly powerful.”
William Ronald, Last Painting (1997–98), acrylic on canvas, 185.4 x 185.4 cm. Courtesy of Ronald Estate. Photo: Heather Hughes
Luke is represented in the exhibition by a number of equally profound works, including the painting Blue Legend. There are these “layers of richness” that Luke is able to create, says Eichhorn, adding that it’s a quality that draws the viewer in, as does her “sophisticated handling of her palette.”
According to Eichhorn, however, not much is known about Ronald’s and Luke’s relationship as artistic contemporaries, other than that they seemed to have genuine respect for one another. Nevertheless, the exhibition is arranged so that the paintings are “in dialogue” with each other — as opposed to having separate sections, for example. In this way, visitors can explore the artists’ particular approaches to abstraction and subject matter.
Alexandra Luke, Blue Legend (c. 1962), oil on canvas, 102.9 x 85.1 cm. Private collection. Photo: Heather Hughes
The Tom Thomson Art Gallery is also planning to release a publication that will contextualize Ronald’s and Luke’s painting in relation to photographs and family reminiscences. It is a strategy that that the Gallery has also adopted to tell the story of Thomson, the iconic Canadian landscape artist who grew up and is buried in the area, and after whom the Gallery is named. The Tom Thomson Art Gallery houses one of Canada’s largest collections of Thomson’s work.
“We situate [Thomson] here in Owen Sound, and look at how he developed and grew into being the artist that he was,” says Eichhorn. So, it is perhaps not surprising that when it came to developing the William Ronald and Alexandra Luke exhibition, Eichhorn was, as she acknowledges, “really thinking about those sorts of parallels.”
The exhibition William Ronald and Alexandra Luke is on view at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario until September 14, 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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