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ARTFUL BLOGGER: Carleton University Art Gallery explores the Dennis Tourbin art that was too hot for the National Gallery


Dennis Tourbin, October Fragments, 1991, acrylic on canvas. © The Estate of Dennis Tourbin, CARCC, 2013.
Dennis Tourbin, October Fragments, 1991, acrylic on canvas. © The Estate of Dennis Tourbin, CARCC, 2013.

The late Dennis Tourbin was, most famously, the Ottawa artist whose work was deemed too incendiary for the National Gallery of Canada in 1995.

The gallery cancelled a planned Tourbin exhibition that year because it would have occurred amid the Quebec independence referendum that autumn and the gallery feared the artwork could have inflamed passions during the campaign.

In those days, Tourbin’s art —  his self-described “passionate obsession” — was all about the October Crisis of 1970, when Front de liberation du Quebec terrorists kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and assassinated Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte.

Cancelling Tourbin’s show riled artists across the country. The National Gallery was accused of censorship.

If you want to see what all the fuss was about, visit a Tourbin retrospective opening Feb. 3 at Carleton University Art Gallery to see some examples of his October Crisis work. The exhibition Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry was organized by the Rodman Hall Art Centre of Brock University in St. Catharines, Tourbin’s hometown. But you will see much more than Tourbin’s much debated, painted fragments of FLQ-related newspaper headlines.

“A pioneer of interdisciplinary practice in Canada, Dennis Tourbin produced a distinctive body of work integrating the written word with painting, drawing, video and performance,” says the Carleton gallery. “From the early 1970s until his death in 1998, Tourbin’s prescient work engaged mass media, using mediated text and imagery in explorations of language and meaning. Part documentarian and part storyteller, Tourbin employed the aesthetics of collage and a serial approach in the drawings and vivid paintings he called ‘visual poems.’”

Diana Nemiroff was the curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery when the Tourbin controversy erupted. She had organized the Tourbin exhibition and she was forced to cancel it. Shirley Thomson, gallery director at the time, went to her grave not knowing if she did the right thing by pulling the plug on the show.

Nemiroff left the National Gallery several years later to become director of the Carleton University Art Gallery. She has since retired from that job but, having long been a fan of Tourbin’s work, she was asked to contribute an essay to the forthcoming catalogue on the touring exhibition. In the essay, Nemiroff discusses a 1995 Ottawa Art Gallery exhibition of Tourbin’s October Crisis art and the cancelled parallel exhibition at the National Gallery.

“Much was made at the time of the National Gallery’s decision to cancel a parallel exhibition of some of the works in its galleries because of the timing of the planned show,” Nemiroff writes. “Certainly, the decision was disappointing for the artist and others involved (as the curator of contemporary art at the Gallery at the time, it was my exhibition). Yet while attracting considerable criticism of the National Gallery from the arts community, the cancellation had the paradoxical effect of making Tourbin a media star and drawing national attention to his work.”

(Nemiroff is right: Tourbin was receiving unsolicited offers from people to buy his paintings that were featured in television news stories about the cancelled show. No one saw the irony of the situation more than Tourbin, who had spent so much of his art practice exploring the power of the media.)

“In a way that Tourbin could not have imagined at the outset,” Nemiroff continues in the catalogue essay, “the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (in Warhol’s often-quoted phrase) that followed the cancelled show was the realization of his goal of marrying his life and the media in his art.”

In fact, Tourbin told The Ottawa Citizen’s Susan Riley at the time that, because of the media coverage, “I have become a part of the history that I have written about.”

Tourbin died May 7, 1998, the day before his 52nd birthday. He was one of Ottawa’s greatest artists. His Pop-art-style work was often compared with that of Andy Warhol.

Would the National Gallery act the same way today as it did in 1995? That’s a good question to ponder while viewing Tourbin’s work.

Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry runs Feb. 3 to April 27 at Carleton University Art Gallery.