Artful Blogger

ON THE RADAR: Ottawa artist Dennis Tourbin finally gets his due

By Paul Gessell

Ottawa’s art community went into mourning in 1998 upon the untimely death of 51-year-old Dennis Tourbin, a poet, performer, visual artist, arts activist and all-round, energetic  nice-guy.

Now, 14 years after his death, his art is being honoured with two exhibitions.

News In The Making by Dennis Tourbin. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy Ottawa Art Gallery.

The biggest show will be in Tourbin’s hometown of St. Catharines. The retrospective, running from Sept. 29 until the end of the year at Brock University’s Rodman Hall Art Centre, will cover the period from 1968 until his death. The show will actually be spread over three venues in the city, including Rodman Hall, a tiny gallery called CRAM, and the Niagara Artists Centre (an artist-run centre Tourbin helped found).

Another, smaller exhibition, from Aug. 31 until Nov. 18, is being organized by the Ottawa Art Gallery for its Firestone Gallery. That show will establish a dialogue between cubist works in the Firestone Collection with cubist-influenced works by Tourbin and other artists.

Rodman Hall is hoping to tour its exhibition to Peterborough, where Tourbin lived for a time, and to Ottawa. The Ottawa Art Gallery has not yet said “no,” but it appears unlikely that gallery will take the Tourbin retrospective. Another possibility for an Ottawa site is Carleton University Art Gallery, whose director is Diana Nemiroff, a big fan of Tourbin’s.

In fact, while Nemiroff was curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, she acquired a set of black ink drawings from Tourbin’s large body of work about the 1970 October Crisis. The works were to be exhibited at the National Gallery in 1995 but the show was cancelled amid fears by the gallery that such an exhibition could be perceived as incendiary during the Quebec sovereignty referendum being held at the same time. Shirley Thomson, gallery director at the time, went to her grave still wondering whether she made the right decision to cancel the show.

October Crisis, Memoir I/II by Dennis Tourbin. Ink on paper. Image courtesy Ottawa Art Gallery.

That National Gallery exhibition in 1995 was also to be held in tandem with an Ottawa Art Gallery show of Tourbin’s October Crisis paintings. A couple of his very large paintings could not even fit into the Ottawa Art Gallery so the National Gallery had offered to exhibit them along with the ink drawings. Alas, that showing was also cancelled but the Ottawa Art Gallery exhibition went ahead, turning Tourbin into a national star.

Now Nemiroff is writing the main catalogue essay for the Rodman Hall exhibition. Judith Parker, curator at the Bytown Museum, is also contributing an essay to that catalogue and is curating the smaller cubist-themed show at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

No one is happier with this turn of events than Nadia Laham, Tourbin’s widow and a prominent Ottawa arts activist. She had been trying for several years to get a retrospective organized of her late husband’s work. Finally, that is happening.

“I’m excited about that,” Laham said in a recent interview.

Tourbin is best known for his October Crises art, in which he turned newspaper headlines about terrorist activities in Quebec into iconic images on canvas. But he also created various series of watercolours, artist books, word paintings, performance art, and videos. Many of these bodies of works will be represented in the Rodman Hall exhibition.

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