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ArtLab, UWO
October 22 - November 8 . 1998

Catalogue Essay by Bridget Elliott, Patrick Mahon and Colette Urban
The fact that London, Ontario has long been considered an important "regional" art centre creates a curious legacy for those artists working in the city today, when the notions of regionalism and nationalism are undergoing considerable scrutiny and redefinition. As early as 1969, the Canadian art critic, Barry Lord noted in Art In America that London artists were among "first global villagers" given the fact that they were both "plugged into" larger art worlds but at the same time irrevocably committed to producing work from their own experience. Therefore one of the objectives of the exhibition Fieldwork is to recall the 1960's and 1970's heyday of London's regional art scene, when the work of Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Tony Urquhart, Ron Benner, Murray Favro, Jamelie Hassan, Kim Ondaatje and writers such as James Reaney (of course any such list is inevitably too restrictive and partial) created a sense of excitement about artistic practice in London, not to mention individual bodies of significant work. (Think for example of the work included in the Heart of London exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada in 1968 and the discussions in Poole, chs. 9-11.) In part Fieldwork constitutes an act of remembering and collectively excavating the past with a newly emerging group of younger artists, but perhaps even more importantly, the exhibition proposes to "revitalize" that past by using it to raise questions about the role of local histories, specific places and cultural communities in Canada of the 1990's.

A major curatorial objective in developing the exhibition was to initiate a collaborative working practice that fostered a sense of community and continuity as well as innovation. Therefore the development of the project consisted in "pairing" five established regional artists -- Ron Benner, Susan Day, Doug Mitchell, Jean Spence, Aidan Urquhart -- with seven student artists -- Shinobu Akimoto, Lee Black, Hendrika Chute, Marianne Katzman, Jen Kime, Lynne Munro and Christy Thompson -- who also work in the London area. Common to all these artists is a strong sense of position or "place." The exploration of a particular place and its historical, geographical and social implications form the underlying threads of Fieldwork. The title simultaneously connotes archaeological excavation, agricultural labour (an appropriate motif for southwestern Ontario), as well as Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture where specialized and semi-autonomous fields of knowledge such as the artistic sphere are constantly traversed by social-economic forces.

In addition to pairing artists of different generations, participants in the Fieldwork project shared readings and research. One of the chief sources of inspiration for the exhibition was Greg Curnoe's Deeds Abstracts (Toronto: Wynick Tuck Gallery, 1992-4) in which he traces the history of his own property in south London back as far as native occupation and land treaties. Indeed two of Curnoe's four paintings from the project (on loan from the Wynick Tuck Gallery, Toronto) are included in the exhibition. In the posthumously published Deeds catalogue Curnoe raises issues which continue to resonate for the participants of Fieldwork: the material and symbolic stakes in the production of knowledge, the politics of naming, the (dis)continuities between past and present, the privileged socio-economic bias of preserving "heritages" and the potentially subversive role of oral histories and local "details." In addition to Curnoe's work, some of the artists and curators collectively worked with the ideas of art critics and historians such as Lucy Lippard, Raphael Samuel and David Lowenthal.

As well as spanning different generations of artists, the Fieldwork project deliberately situates itself somewhere between local academic and artistic communities. The participants were brought together by virtue of being in the same place at the same time, however differently this might be experienced on an individual or group basis. In this respect the project contributes to the ongoing critical re-examination of regionalist questions which has been recently pursued in a number of other Canadian locations (e.g. The Regina Work Project in 1989-91, New Histories: The Manitoba Studio Series in 1989-92, Topographies: Aspects of Recent B.C. Art in 1996 and the Postcolonial Landscape Project in 1993-98).
Fieldwork forms a link between artists and curators from this region with their counterparts in other areas of Canada. Though they may have widely diverging content concerns or be physically remote from one another, these producers share in the ongoing work of linking the local with the global, and the concerns of the present with those of the past.

-Bridget Elliott, Patrick Mahon and Colette Urban