Text by: Chris Cran
When it was decided that we would like to show the work of senior Calgary artist, Harry Kiyooka, at Stride Gallery, I phoned Harry and extended to him the board’s invitation. Harry said he had some paintings that he had shown in Vancouver at the New Design Gallery in 1966 with fellow artist Tak Tanabe, and that they had come back and some were still unwrapped. I was intrigued. I remember, as a student at Alberta College of Art in the late seventies being knocked out by an exhibition of his paintings that Ron Moppett had curated for the College gallery. That exhibition included his magnificent Aegean Series as well as some of the work in this exhibition.
Harry speaks of returning from Europe in 1961 after a period of studying and painting, to a province where most artists were still working with landscape and figuration in a post-war manner. There was only one other artist working abstractly, and that was Doug Haynes, of Edmonton. Harry had spent some time in Vancouver with his brother, Roy Kiyooka who had already developed a signature hard-edged, geometric style. Harry was certainly aware of Roy’s painting, but his return to Alberta was at a time when formalist ideas were paramount in the international art world and he recalls that he did not feel beholden to any stylistic regime.
The works in this exhibition display a remarkable range in their colouration, opticality, materiality, and gestural variance. Note the brushtrokes in early paintings such as Sticks and Stones. They are loose, quick, of thin application and not redone. A middle period of this ongoing series finds the brushstrokes clean, dense and squared off – clearly formed. In the later period there are no brushstrokes, only strokes. These are made with the use of tape and, in their assuredness, are at the limit of being purely graphic. It is these later works which enact, most potently, a certain opticality, a popping at the intersection of two crossed strokes on a background of a third colour, or a darkening of the edge of a stroke in relationship to its background: things seen but not there.
These unexpected jumps, these optical incidents provide for, what he refers to as, a “discontinuity” in the paintings, and the space in these works, created by formal, spatial continuity and confounded by optical surprise describe a state of being. “Discontinuous” is how he describes feeling at that particular time and it is remarkable how these paintings speak TO being and speak OF materiality. I had come upon a striking quote last year in a catalogue for Philip Guston’s retrospective at the Met in an essay by the curator, Michael Auping which came to mind while looking at Harry’s Aegean series once again:
"The Greeks idolized the finite, and therefore were masters of all grace, elegance, proportion, fancy, dignity, majesty---of whatever, in short, is capable of being definitely conceived by defined forms or thoughts. The moderns revere the infinite, and affect the indefinite as a vehicle of the infinite; hence their passions, their obscure hopes and fears, their wanderings through the unknown, their grander moral feelings, their more august conception of man as man, their future rather than their past---in a word, their sublimity”
I joked with Harry about how the strokes in these earlier paintings had migrated to the edges and arranged themselves in an orderly manner into friezes in later works (some of the Aegean series, his “Greek” paintings). He laughed and said, “They had to go somewhere”, and indeed they did. In that series, the friezes provide a material counterpoint to a vast and spiritual space, which begins where the frieze ends.
In surveying this exhibition, one might not necessarily know how these paintings developed or what they developed from, but for the title of a single work: “Springtime on the Fraser” from 1962. This painting is based on an experience Harry had of looking down from a bridge upon the Fraser River that was choked with logs in a spring runoff. So here was an interpretive visual representation of something seen. There are a few titles in his list of paintings from that time which perhaps hint at similar representation: Blue Thaw (1962), Slowly to the Westward (1963), but most of the titles are ambiguous in the manner of the day. It is interesting to consider the development then, of a formal, abstract, visual language, arranged across the most privileged site of that historical moment (the picture plane), effortlessly proving its powers of extension both laterally and spatially, potent in its opticality, and yet having it’s humble beginnings in the noticing of something.
Between the spiritual and the material, resides perception. The spiritual doesn’t do anything because it doesn’t have to. Material doesn’t do anything because it can’t, Perception at least notices. Harry noticed a log jam.
Born in Ocean Falls, British Columbia in 1949, Chris Cran is a graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Design, Calgary. The recipient of numerous Canada Council grants, the Chris has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally.
His paintings have been widely exhibited across Canada in both solo and group exhibitions.
In a recent survey article published in the Fall 2003 issue of Canadian Art magazine, critic Nancy Tousley describes Cran’s rise to the top of the Canadian painting scene with particular focus on the conceptual framework that has informed a practice centered around the artist’s attraction to popular culture and kitsch.
The recipient of numerous Canada Council grants, the artist has exhibited at the 49th Parallel Gallery, New York City (1992) and in the Fourth International Painting Biennial, Cuenca, Ecuador (1994). The Kelowna Art Gallery organized a major survey of Cran's work from 1977 – 1997. Entitled Surveying the Damage, the exhibition traveled the country into the year 2000; a catalogue with essays by Dr. Roald Nasgaard and art critic Nancy Tousley accompanied the exhibition.
In addition to his professional activities as a painter, Chris Cran has been actively involved in Calgary’s theatre scene, and recently produced several uniquely creative sets for Calgary’s internationally recognized One Yellow Rabbit theatre company.
Chris Cran’s work is well collected and may be found in numerous private and public collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Glenbow, The Mackenzie Art Gallery, and the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, to name a few. Chris Cran is represented by TrépanierBaer in Calgary and Sable-Castelli in Toronto. A solo exhibition of Chris Cran’s work was recently on view at TrépanierBaer gallery, Calgary.
Harry Kiyooka attended the Universities of Alberta, (B. Ed. 53), Manitoba, (B.F.A. 54), Michigan State University, (M.A.56), University of Colorado, (M.F.A. 57), and received a Canada Council Scholarship to study in Italy from 1958 / 1961. In 1961 he returned to Calgary to assume teaching position at the new University of Alberta, Calgary campus - Professor Emeritus of Art -1988. Harry has travelled and worked extensively in Europe, Japan, India and the United States and has been the recipient of numerous awards including: First Prize for Painting, 10th Winnipeg Show and Jacox Award- Joint Prize, All Alberta Exhibition, Edmonton Art Gallery. He has exhibited in many national and international exhibitions including the 6th Biennial of Canadian Art, the 85th R.C.A. Winter Exhibition, Montreal, Canadian Printmakers Showcase, 1973, Spectrum Canada, 1976, Olympic Games, Montreal, 25 Year Retrospective Exhibition, 1978, Alberta College of Art Gallery, Calgary, Tercera Biennial American de Grabado, Chile, S.A., Exposition Internationales de Gravure, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, Primera Bienial America de Artes Graphicas, Columbia, S.A., First International Biennial Exhibition of Graphic Art and Multiples, Spain, and the Third Exposition Internationale de Gravure, Frechen, Germany.
For the past 30 years he has served on local, provincial and national boards: the Canadian Conference of the Arts, Royal Canadian Academy, Alberta Society of Artists, the Alberta Art Foundation, Calgary Allied Arts Centre, Calgary Allied Arts Foundation, and Calgary Contemporary Arts Society.
Harry is a founding member (1982) of the Calgary Contemporary Arts Society, Life Member of the Alberta Society of Artists and member of the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1996 he was the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the Alberta College of Art and Design for his contributions to the visual arts. Most recently he was awarded a 125th Anniversary Medal of Confederation for establishing the Triangle Gallery of Visual Arts in Calgary and his contributions to the community.