York Wilson
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Retrospective 1927-1973
Geometrics 1966-71
Poetry Paintings

York Wilson Retrospective

Commentary by York Wilson

The two small water colours in this exhibition, The Ward and Corner of Richmond and York, were first shown at the juried Montreal Spring Show in 1932. The Ward was subsequently invited to the next National Gallery Annual selected exhibition. These sketches were done during lunch hours from the roof of Brigden’s Limited, Toronto, where at 17 years of age I was apprentice earning 5 dollars for 44 hour week.

My art training has been second and third year of a four year course at Central Technical School in Toronto. In those days, art training was little more than an introduction to art materials, a smattering of drawing, and some elementary hints about colour. There was little or no direction in the study of art history or philosophy. As a result, these early sketches were done with no more thought than just that of getting an attractive impression of the subject.

At this time Charles Comfort, Will Ogilvie and Fred Finley were artist at Brigden’s and in carious ways they helped me to move in the direction of fine art. Charles Comfort frequently criticized my sketches and paintings and he also suggested philosophical readings and classical music studies. Fred Finley, who had just come from Juliens Academy in Paris, encouraged me to draw regularly from the figure. Probably because of this early practice, I still draw realistically from the nude a half day every week, in spite of the fact that for several years my painting has been almost completely abstract.

From 1924 to 1928 I worked as a commercial artist in Toronto and Detroit. I was a weekend and evening painter, continuing to study art on my own through books and museums. With the exception of several graphics that appeared in two Canadian National Exhibition shows, I did not exhibit again until 1939

By 1938, not only was I ready to paint larger works, I felt I had something to say and was ready to begin exhibiting. In the meantime I had become aware of the great variety of painters from all periods. The ones I admired were as disparate in styles as Breughel, Piera della Francesca, Degas, Bellini, Seurat, Gauguin, Vermeer and Ucello.

The first large canvas was to be called Burlesque No. 1. But after weeks of work it turned out so badly that I burned it and started another larger one. For that reason, my first large canvas is entitled Burlesque No. 2. It was juried and accepted for the Ontario Society of Artists exhibition in the spring of 1939. Later that year the work was exhibited with the Canadian Group of Painters at the New York World’s Fair.

From 1939 to 1949 I was concerned with a very realistic “social commentary” type of painting. The titles suggest the subject matter: Welfare Worker, National Affairs, Public Library, Local Dance, Blood Donors, The March Past, Beauty Contest and After Dinner Speaker. Concurrently with these were interspersed a series of Burlesque paintings, Lovely Ladies of the Ensemble, Dressing Room and Backstage. Oddly enough, although I was sketching landscape on a regular basis, I did not enlarge on any of them except Indian Harbour.

Barn Window is a unique piece for me. The actual barn window was so perfect a piece of design and texture that I literally copied it as accurately as possible. I am often tempted to do more of this kind of realism but I am afraid it could lead into a type of painting that only interests me technically.

Hedley Rainnie is one of a dozen or so portraits that I have done, usually for my own enjoyment. The strain of having to get a likeness and to satisfy client would prevent me from accepting commissioned portraits even if they were offered.

Entrechat was one of a series of ballet paintings. After painting ballet for a year or two, the subject had became so popular that if I had continued, the public would never have allowed me to paint anything else. Therefore I was not surprised to find that when I stopped, sales dropped off very sharply, because as many erstwhile collectors said, “They were not interested in my paintings of other subjects,” and proved it by not buying.

Cocktail Party is different from the other social commentary paintings. I had thought that caricaturing a subject made communication much stronger. But now I believe that caricature makes it ludicrous and thereby makes a work less acceptable as serious painting.

Sunlit Street was the major turning point in my painting. Before this time I could appreciate abstract painting, but was unable to find the exact point of departure for myself. It was while doing the sketch for this painting that the meaning of abstraction became amazingly clear. The whole scene in front of me became visually a related environment. The mountains had the same basic form as the roofs of the houses. The rebozos on the figures in the street repeated the same form. The markings on the street and the sky and all the elements of the scene seemed to complement one another. Even though today this painting seems to be very slightly abstracted, nevertheless for me it was the key to abstracting form. This later led to my ability to also abstract colour.

It was shortly after this discovery that I began to study picture construction per se. Prior to this time, a composition was limited to what could only be described as “tidying up the elements”. But now there was a conscious effort to orchestrate each painting so that even without any recognizable subject the painting would be complete as a work of art. En route to Canary Islands in 1958, we spent many days at the Louvre in Paris and at the Prado in Madrid. It is a fact that during the time spent in these museums I developed an insight into abstraction through the work of artists like Uccello, Piera della Francesca, Beughel, etc. The understanding that I derived from them was much clearer than from any contemporary painters.

Facade is another painting done in Mexico. At this time I was involved in numerous discussions with Rico Leburn about various art theories, one which was that of trying to make each painting timeless. In this case I painted a fašade that was not a specific one, but rather the idea of the meaning of a timeless visual fašade.

Corner of Venice is an impression derived from numerous sketches done in Italy. Again I was attempting to create a timeless statement. We lived in Italy for a year and took advantage of the opportunity to study the history of the Roman Empire and to experience and enjoy the vastness of the subject.  Mount Etna, with the usual cloud formation over the volcano, evolved from a sketch done that same year.

A Propos de Shaka is one of several collages I did from brown papers, newspaper and India ink. Graeme Wilson wrote the following poem about the painting:

Here in a shieldshape isihlangu,
Of mirror-glass and marker stones
The sorcerers of Shaka Zulu
Cursed and cast their lucking-bones.

Here are the days with Dingiswayo,
The IziCwe, their queasy eyes;
And here the swaying vulture-shadow
Over the shields and assegais;

Scarred cattle-hide; M’zilikasi’s
Hidden cattle; muscle-gloss
And Sorghum stains like blackened daisies
Starred on the orgy-hard kaross;

And here, the blood already gnarling
Sunblack in the ochre light,
Are Dinggan’s dirk and Shaka’s snarling
Boneshapes in the Kraals of night.

is an impression of Adriatic fishing boats on the Island of Chioggia near Venice. And Reflection developed from sketches done in the city of Venice.

The title of Lepanto should really be The Battle of Lepanto, after a naval engagement in 1571 between Turkey and the Christian League. This canvas is typical of the creative progress that is almost automatic. A canvas is started without a specific idea or subject in mind. At some point while painting, past experience or even impressions of things read start to take over subconsciously and determine the end result of the work. For this reason it is difficult to title a painting that contains elements derived from experiences in various countries over a period of several years. Braque, when asked if he could visualize the end result before he started a painting answered, “Of course not. If that were possible there would be no reason for painting it.”

Le Figaro Construction was produced when we had just moved to Paris. At that point I didn’t know where to buy art supplies. As we were getting settled we bought furniture, which was delivered in large sheets of brown paper. And every day there were one or two newspaper. Almost inevitably, collages began to develop from the brown paper, newspaper and India ink. This medium became so fascinating that canvasses continued to appear for about six months. From time to time it is still interesting to use this medium.

In 1965-1966 my wife and I traveled for a year. During the trip I did many sketches in oil, completed 180 paintings (12 x 16”) and five sketches books of black and white drawings. Mogul Bridge is developed from one of the drawings. The bridge is on the Kralian Canal near the City of Sringar in Kashmir. This bridge is surrounded by medieval-looking buildings that were influenced by the Moguls (Mongols). Another painting that emerged from the drawings I did on this trip was Cave on South Canal. It depicts the entrance to a building on South Canal Street in Singapore. Small Wall of China was painted in Hong Kong. My imagination was stirred by the sight of a wall covered with the remains of posters. The natural patterns of the posters with bits and pieces torn off intrigued me and the result is a fairly figurative rendering of the scene as I perceived it.

Safari and Paean to Autumn are two of my geometric paintings. My geometric period was the result of two dreams. My wife and I had arrived in Paris in July 1966, on the last leg of our round-the-world tour that had started in Japan the year before. My mind was brimming with millions of new impressions that had not yet been the cause of the dream. However, one night I dreamed about a geometric painting in colour. There was no story-line to the dream, just the painting. I had never been much interested in this kind of thing, and the dream was unlike anything I had ever seen. The next morning before breakfast I did a pencil sketch. The after breakfast I decided that the colour was important too, so I did a colour version. It took me all day.

The next thing I dreamed of another very clear geometric painting. The following day I went through the same procedure; pencil sketch before breakfast, then all day doing a colour sketch. I didn’t dream on the third night, but I was still so intrigued that the next day I found myself experimenting with a third geometric painting. The result was that from July 1966 until sometime in 1971, I was unable to paint in any other style.

My geometric phase stopped as suddenly as it had started, and since that time is has been completely impossible for me to do anything like it again, no matter how hard I try. It is because of experiences like this that it is so difficult to understand the creative process.

Tribute to Arthur Lismer is dedicated to a good friend. It was painted just after Lismer’s death in 1971, with his painting Islands of Spruce particularly in mind.

Kashmir Facade was painted from a sketch I did while living briefly on a houseboat on the Jehlum river, new Sringar.

The title of Mediteranean Reflection is ambiguous. It is a reflection on reflections. As I discussed earlier, this type of painting emerges from a myriad of impressions. It is enough that they appear automatically on canvas. To discover their respective sources would be beyond even the ability of psychoanalysts.

Game is a tapestry commissioned for the Simpson-Sears directors’ dining room. For that reason, game (rabbit, deer, elk, bear, grouse, pheasant, duck, fish, crab, turtle, etc) that might appear on the dining table is the subject of the tapestry. Both tapestries in this exhibition were woven in the Gobelin technique at Atelier du Marais, Paris.

The collage Design for a Square No. 2 is related to so many subjects, both Oriental and Occidental, that it can have no real explanation. The work evolved out of many ideas that had been on my mind for a long time, and they emerged all at once. The colours and textures are related to things like walls, landscapes, people and clothing. However, in the final analysis this piece, like all works of art, should be interpreted by the viewer.

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