By Paul Gessell
There is much to be said against the Ottawa Art Gallery. Its exhibition spaces are too small and placed helter-skelter in the bowels of Arts Court. Its choice of exhibitions, artists, and curators are often perplexing and its relations with the local art community could certainly be better.
But sometimes the OAG gets it right. And the newly opened retrospective Pat Durr: Persistence of Chaos is one of those times.
First of all, Durr has been one of Ottawa’s art stars for half a century. A retrospective at the very gallery she helped found through her decades of arts activism was long overdue.
Born in Kansas City in 1939, Durr came to Ottawa in the 1960s and bravely demonstrated that women, too, could be abstract expressionists, a genre largely considered an all-boys’ club back then.
Never predictable, Durr has bulldozed her way through the art world, championing various environmental and political causes with delicate figure studies, gauzy spray paintings, robust abstractions in blazing colours, large-scale prints and collages aestheticizing industrial waste, and cheeky installations, including various exhibitions in which soda pop cans were turned into a symbol of our junk-food, disposable culture. (Durr once barely escaped arrest in New Orleans for littering because of her habit of placing empty pop cans on a street and running over them with her car to achieve just the right flatness).
Works from all these periods of Durr’s artistic evolution are on view in this exhibition, curated ever so sensitively and wisely by rising star Catherine Sinclair, the young OAG curator best known for organizing exhibitions of the in-house, 20th century Firestone Collection but more recently being allowed to branch out to supervise contemporary shows as well.
“Central to my work, whether it is formal or allegorical, is a celebration of life and its complexities,” Durr wrote in 1987. Indeed, in all of her work, even when dealing with unpleasant environmental issues, a sense of joy and good humour prevail.
OAG also got it right with the splendid catalogue that accompanies this exhibition. There are insightful contributions by Sinclair, Jen Budney (a former Gallery 101 director) and Mayo Graham (the first ever director of the OAG and a former National Gallery executive).
The catalogue properly makes note of Durr’s “second career,” that of arts activist. Durr is one of those people who does not wait for someone else to make the first move. She has served as a volunteer on numerous municipal art-related committees, helped launch Arts Court, assisted in the rebirth of a dying Canada Council Art Bank and was instrumental in the crafting of a national regulatory framework for the payment of artists whose work is exhibited in public galleries.
Durr is represented in Ottawa by Galerie St. Laurent + Hill on Dalhousie Street. A companion show of new work will be held at that commercial gallery from April 26 to May 9.
The OAG show runs until June 3.