Thursday, June 21, 2018

Rita Letendre: Toronto Public Art, Organized by Adam Lauder, YYZ, May 25 - July 21, 2018

Rita Letendre, Ixtepac, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 77” x 63” 

Rita Letendre is undisputedly in revival mode with a solo exhibition last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Fire and Light) and a subsequent national tour. Following that but long in the planning is a more micro-focused yet widely-contextualizing exhibition of this ninety-year old painter’s work curated by Adam Lauder, currently one of the few scholars solidly versed in Canadian Modernism.
Lauder’s exhibition focuses on a series of Letendre’s commissioned murals that have now disappeared or have been neglected in Toronto and California. The mural projects are clearly referenced by two large-scale acrylic paintings: Sunrise II (1973, acrylic on canvas, 38” x 240”) and Ixtepac (1977, acrylic on canvas, 77” x 63”) along with printed matter documenting their commissioning and making.
Beginning by acknowledging possible references to her indigenous heritage (arrow and sunrise imagery), Lauder’s accompanying essay notes a range of influences from Snow, to Borduas, to the Plasticien movement. Presenting such a broad base is a wise strategy when considering a maverick artist who was in all ways anomalous: an indigenous woman rising from the all-male Automatistes and working alongside but not quite in tune with more men: the hard-edged Plasticiens. She softened their hard masculine edges. Simultaneously, she enlivened their sombre geometry with her characteristic diagonal bands of vibrant, pulsating colour.
One missing influence though in Lauder’s otherwise thorough analysis is what was then called commercial art, an influence especially noticeable in Letendre’s post-1970 work. Specifically, I’m referring to the “super graphics” of the early seventies, those groovy, snazzy colour ribbons installed as architectural murals that were painted locally during Letendre's time by Yale-trained architect Barrie Briscoe’s firm Super Graffitti, where incidentally, Toronto's most noteworthy hard-edged painter, Jaan Poldaas, briefly worked. Letendre’s murals do seem as comfortable in architectural space as they would have in the David Mirvish or Isaacs galleries, the two abstract painting spaces in Toronto at the time. In fact, in 1971, Letendre began using a then staple commercial mural and illustration tool: the airbrush. The glaring Tide© detergent package orange in Sunrise II highlights the resultant graphic design aesthetic.
Straddling graphic art and what is Zen-inspired abstraction is a challenging balancing act, and Letendre sometimes falls into overly-regimented design that consciously illustrates rather than spontaneously embodies the spiritualism she seeks her paintings to contain. The included Ixtepec is not one of these. Its gentle fades between colours juxtaposed with a centrally-placed orange-blue arrow shape form an evocative contrast between subtle meditation and bold graphic impact.
Lauder clearly illustrates why Letendre deserves further historic mention in Canada. Surely, it’s a sign of systematic sexism and racism combined that Letendre's name is all that is mentioned of her in Dennis Reid’s seminal A Concise History of Canadian Painting, which in this case has taken the adjective describing “history” in its title a tad too seriously.
And Lauder's exhibition is a welcome project in urban as well as Modernist archaeology. It stands not only as a particularly significant contribution to the reintroduction of an artist and a specific body of work forgotten in the Toronto art world, but also as a performative metaphor for this developer-frenzied, cash-blinded city, which wantonly demolishes its architectural heritage.

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