In: narrative painting

Curtis Doherty | Who Knit Ya? | 2024
February 25, 2024

Curtis Doherty | Who Knit Ya? | 2024
February 20th to March 9th 2024 at Westland Gallery, London, Ontario

Out of these you make what you can, knowing that one thing leads to another. Sometime, someone will forget himself and say too much or else the corner of a picture will reveal the whole.

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I am alive in everything I touch. Touch these pages and you have me in your fingertips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing dies.

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As the past moves under your fingertips, part of it crumbles. Other parts, you know you’ll never find. This is what you have.

(Timothy Findley, The Wars)

Mining family history in terms of artmaking is both a rich and a dangerous field. On this front, Amy Friends’ exhibition Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life is a touchstone for me. In her exhibition, the assemblage – the editing, as to what might be revealed –  of inherited objects that had significance that might be discerned by a visitor (others of which were opaque to an outsider) and the works that they inspired had a universal appeal. I say this as someone who has been exploring their ancestry in Niagara and found out some things that are also problematic (United Empire Loyalists as ancestors did not please me, ahem. I was comfortable with dissidents and criminals). Perhaps more of the ruminations of Timothy Findley is apropos here : “The occupants of memory have to be protected from strangers.”

In that same manner, Doherty presents a personal story that resonates with many of us, on many levels. Due to the locale – the sites he’s revisiting in paint being referential to Newfoundland, and the diaspora that has often been an experience of the people there, seeking work and economic stability far from home – the works of the late David Blackwood also come to mind, as an expansion of the conversation. One might see Blackwood’s works as one chapter of a story about Newfoundland, and Doherty’s as an addendum, decades later, but of the same ‘families.’

The artist statement :

“In 1930 a one-legged woman gathered all she had into a raggedy old chest and left Newfoundland for Quebec with her 6 year old son. Armfuls of photos, documents, and objects [lay] there for a century. What you are about to see is all of this brought to light [and] brought to life.
Witness the reality of the boy and his one-legged mother navigate the harsh landscape and time, the abandonment from the father, and the beauty of The Rock. The tangible and the intangible collide with areas of flat colour [so you must look] under the ribs of the wooden chest, to see the heart that lay under the ribs of the living chests.

“Who Knit Ya?” is a common Newfoundland term that asks who one’s parents are – a question this young boy asked his whole life. It begs to ask who we really are, and what legacy will we leave? It would be beyond folklore for anyone depicted here to imagine themselves captured in artworks a century later, and [moreso] what their toil paid forward. So as you view this work, be inspired to acknowledge the fact that we are just the tip of a larger iceberg, in a larger historical story. Ask yourself with introspection: WHO KNIT YA?”

I spoke to Doherty about his paintings (this new chapter added to family lore) after the reception for the exhibition, when conversations about the works led to wider considerations about the series. The words of the artist in conversation :

“It is a family story of mine…the small boy in the paintings is my grandfather, whose mother was the one legged woman, and whose father abandoned them.
There is also depictions of the mother’s parents (The Seal Hunter being her father- my great great grandfather). Through receiving this old trunk from my grandmother and all it’s neglected artifacts from 1880-1930, I’ve been able to piece together some family history, tell their story, and bring it to life from everything I found within that trunk. That was the trunk they moved to Quebec from Newfoundland with in 1929 / 30.

There are a few themes I’m touching on…stories of broken families, reconciliation of that brokenness, and lack of privilege and opportunity my grandfather had and [yet] still overcame it…And also just paying homage to hard working people of the past and the [amazing] thought [that] they could have never imagined they’d be depicted [and celebrated] in the future.”

In engaging with Doherty’s paintings, I’ve found myself looking through the lens of (appropriately) Canadian authors like Timothy Findley or Margaret Laurence whose characters are trying to make sense or discern a larger pattern of both their experiences or events that have defined their lives. This mirrors Doherty’s impetus for his paintings, and how sometimes the fragments are pushed together in a way that might not match the ‘reality’ but speak a contemporary truth to the descendants and inheritors of these objects and memories….

Now I am rampant with memory laments Hagar Shipley (from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel) as in the declining days of her long existence she looks back on her life, in flashes both more intense and ‘real’ than her current state and often suffused with emotions both joyful and despairing. In some ways, she’s trying to reconcile conflicting and contested elements of a difficult story, just as we see in Doherty’s paintings, with his own family.

Doherty’s exhibition Who Knit Ya? – which the artist has subtitled ‘a vibrant exploration through a forgotten “new found land”‘ – is on view until March 9th, 2024 at Westland Gallery, London, Ontario. It’s presented in tandem with another exhibition titled Tales from the Rock (a group show of artists inspired by Newfoundland). I’ve relied heavily on literary references here in speaking to Doherty’s exhibition – and why not? It’s the stories we tell ourselves, or modify, as seen in Doherty’s paintings that define us. This is true even in the title of the show being a question that asks for similar stories from the viewers themselves : consider your lineage, and the people who defined and deformed you. Perhaps you see yourself as the latest link in a chain, or a break, instead.

Thus I am also comfortable to suggest you seek out David French’s play Leaving Home. It was one of the first stories I consumed, as a young man, about Newfoundland (though it takes place in Ontario – another parallel to Doherty’s paintings) that was not pure sentimentality but real and unflinching and difficult.

Although I have approached Doherty’s work while standing in the sphere of literature, I would indicate that when you look at his painting, that visual art has a significant advantage when exploring familial spaces with the inherent entanglements and contradictions: the multiplicity of interpretation, the possibility for injecting your own experiences into the works, is more rampant and possible. There is a vagueness – a subjectivity – to visual narratives that aligns with the vagaries of family history. The manner in which figures overlap and are constructed by other characters in the story acts as a visual depiction of how they are ‘knit’ from their ancestors. Some figures are just shadows in the background : and painting is the creation of a moment moreso than how photography is capturing one, and that is instrumental in what is presented here, which is perhaps dependent on facts but is also more demonstrative of feelings.

From his site : “Curtis Doherty is a Canadian painter who works primarily in oil who currently resides in Ontario. His work explores themes of history and the modern world through the complex relationship of the tangible and the intangible. He has studied at Sheridan College of Art & Design and abroad, as well as teaching at all levels.”

More of his work can be seen here.

The header image for this essay is titled Shule from the Scut : the images shared here are just a few selections from this series and were all created between 2019 and 2024. The full body of work can be enjoyed here.

Who Knit Ya? is on view at Westland Gallery (in London, Ontario) until the 9th of March 2024.

~ Bart Gazzola

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