Going Out

NEW SHOW: Cube Gallery scores a show with celebrated Canadian artist Joe Fafard and buddy Russell Yuristy

How Cube Gallery nabbed a joint show by celebrated prairie artists Joe Fafard and Russell Yuristy
BY PAUL GESSELL

Fafard and Russell Yuristy photographed together at a workshop in Lumsden, Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan farm boys Joe Fafard and Russell Yuristy are disciples of Vincent Van Gogh, although the famously loony and humourless Dutch painter never had these guys’ sense of mischief. Fafard and Yuristy have been merrily conniving for 44 years, initially as “revolutionaries” and “troublemakers” when they were young University of Saskatchewan art instructors challenging the theories and aesthetics of their department heads. And many times since then, as artists they have exhibited together: in Paris in 1973, in Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, and now this fall in Ottawa.

Nothing, however, beats the audacity of their joint — well, sort of joint — appearance at Regina’s Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery during a 1978 exhibition of the city’s top artists. Fafard was included, but Yuristy was not. Fafard corrected that by creating a ceramic sculpture of Yuristy for the exhibition and then sticking a Yuristy painting on the wall behind to complete the “portrait” of his buddy. “They had no choice but to accept it.” Fafard chuckles as he recounts the story from his studio along Boggy Creek, just north of Regina.

Both now in their 70s, Fafard and Yuristy are staging a joint exhibition, Prairie Companions, from October 16 to December 2 at Cube Gallery. Transplanted to Ottawa in 1985, Yuristy regularly shows his drawings and prints at Cube. But an exhibition of new works by Fafard at a commercial gallery in Ottawa is an exceedingly rare opportunity to savour sculptures from one of Canada’s favourite artists.

Fafard's life-sized bronze sculpture “Bonjour” (2011)

Both men love animals. For the Ottawa show, Fafard has been making wolves — both life-sized and larger, some in bronze and some laser-cut versions — similar to his remarkable sculpture Running Horses, in front of the National Gallery of Canada. On the walls at Cube, surrounding the sculptures, will be Yuristy’s prints of rabbits, owls, coyotes, wolves, and other wildlife, plus large-scale paintings of trees.

Both artists capture the very essence of animals, whether wild or domestic. The creatures become mythical beings with personalities: not human personalities, but animal ones. These animals could, if given the chance, easily devour the soulless beasts inhabiting the shopping-mall prints of Robert Bateman.

The genesis of the Cube exhibition goes back to 2008, when the gallery owner, Don Monet, visited a Fafard retrospective at the National Gallery and saw one of the artist’s playful sculptures depicting Yuristy. “I realized how close they were then.”

Two years later, Monet and the two artists met up at the Toronto International Art Fair. The old farm boys regaled Monet with stories of their past daredevil exploits. Fafard once exhibited hilariously critical ceramic caricatures of his faculty bosses at the Regina campus of the University of Saskatchewan, where he and Yuristy taught. One boss was depicted as a toilet. Another rode a phallic horse.

Yuristy's three-colour woodcut, “Great Grey Owl” (2010)

The camaraderie of the two artists inspired Monet to propose a joint exhibition. “The two artists are so very strongly tied — to the land, to the prairie, to ecology, to their process and, of course, to each other.”

The exhibition marks a 44-year-long mutual admiration society. Fafard says Yuristy’s works “move” him. “It’s akin to a feeling of love.” That’s why, Fafard says, Yuristy’s art is always on the walls of his Saskatchewan home.

As for Yuristy, he says he loves Fafard’s work for its “honesty, directness, and inventiveness.” He calls Fafard “a true original” who does not follow the fads and fashions of the art business.

Fafard’s work was once branded mignon, an uncomplimentary French word for “cute” employed by the influential New York critic Clement Greenberg. Well, Greenberg is undoubtedly spinning in his grave knowing Fafard’s cows, horses, and wolves are celebrated — and not just by best buddy Yuristy, but by many Canadians who consider those animals national treasures.

Prairie Companions runs from October 16 to December 2 at Cube Gallery, 1285 Wellington St. W.

This story appears in the October edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.