Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Unfair Warning

The Maze
William Kurelek
Gouache on board
91.00 by 121.00 cm

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

The Maze

See, a gun is real easy
In this desperate part of town
Turns you from hunted into hunter
You go and hunt somebody down
Somebody said "Fair Warning"
Lord, strike that poor boy down!
(Mean Street - Van Halen)

William Kurelek painted The Maze in 1953 while he was a psychiatric patient in England. The painting depicts "the inside of my skull" (as he describes it). It is a pictorial narrative of his troubled life up to that point, a story he told in order to be accepted by his doctors as an "interesting specimen." He was in obvious need of attentive acceptance.
     Thankfully, Kurelek received psychiatric attention then, and rightfully receives artistic acceptance now thirty-five years after his death in 1977. The Maze is a relentless example of the technical breadth and psychological depth of one of Canada's most celebrated artists. It pays those who pay attentive acceptance to it and the body of work that it represents. Scholarship still needs to come to terms with the historical context, the contemporary interest, and the future significance of Kurelek's artistic achievement.
     Speaking of pay, it is not without note that Kurelek's paintings are fetching high prices now. The lots that sold during the recent spring auctions of Canadian fine art at Heffel's in Vancouver, and Sotheby's and Joyner Waddington's in Toronto, are evidence enough of this positive market trend for serious Kurelek collectors. After Joyner Waddington's Vice-President and chief auctioneer Rob Cowley gave the audience fair warning on auction Lot 110 (Kurelek's 1976 painting After Church During Indian Summer - The Kavanagh Homestead, Bancroft), it sold for $177,000 CDN, well above the initial auction estimate of $60,000 - $80,000.

William Kurelek's The Maze


     One reason why Kurelek is selling is due to the press that he is getting among Canadian galleries. One such gallery is the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH). From January 28 to April 29, 2012 the AGH hosted the first major exhibition of Kurelek's work in a quarter of a century. The show comprised over eighty pieces drawn from each period of Kurelek's productive life. It was the largest exhibit of his work shown to date. To celebrate this event a recently created documentary film entitled William Kurelek's The Maze was shown on March 22, 2012 in conjunction with this exhibit. The film was originally made in 1969 by the American film maker Robert M. Young. It was a short documentary film on Kurelek lasting thirty minutes. It had limited exposure. Young eventually packed the film reels away and turned to other projects.
     Forty years later the original film was uncovered by Robert's two sons Nick and Zack Young. In order to honour and continue their father's work on the subject they turned the film into a full-length documentary feature, directed by documentary film maker David Brubin. The film rightly received riveting reviews.

A Riveting Film

     I was initially riveted by Kurelek's work through an unexpected source. In 1981 I purchased Van Halen's fourth studio recording Fair Warning. Apart from my youthful enthusiasm for the underrated ability of drummer Alex Van Halen, I bought this recording because of the art work on its cover. I had not seen anything like it. The only other time I had this kind of aesthetic reaction to an album cover was when I purchased Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (and as all Gould fanatics will attest, the album cover is as beautifully enigmatic as Glenn's own re-recording of his 1955 debut release with Columbia). It was not until quite later in my life that I made the following connection between Fair Warning and The Maze: close inspection of the former surprisingly demonstrates that sections of the latter are conveniently cropped and beautifully blocked together on the front cover of Fair Warning. I did some research and realized that these sections were, in fact, part of Kurelek's painting and consequently used to obvious commercial success.

Fair Warning


     After the screening of the film at the AGH there was a Q&A session hosted by producer Zack Young. On either side of Young sat Kurelek's sister Nancy, along with Kurelek's son Stephen. After the Q&A session was finished I waited in line to speak to Stephen Kurelek. When I finally got the chance to speak with him privately I told him my story of how I was initially riveted by Kurelek's work. After informing him that Fair Warning had sold over two million units since its release on April 29, 1981, I asked whether his family had received royalty payments for the use of sections from The Maze. He acknowledged that he knew about the Van Halen connection, but seemed quite upset about it. This was a harbinger of his answer to come. I was expecting to hear how the Kurelek family had put their fair royal share to good use. Not so. He answered my question with one word: "No."
     I was shocked by this unexpected response. He then told me the following story. According to him, Van Halen and their representatives did not give the Kurelek family fair warning that they were going to use Kurelek's art, let alone ask permission from them to do so. What they reportedly did was as brutal as the subject matter of Kurelek's painting. According to Stephen Kurelek, representatives from Van Halen went into the psychiatric hospital in England where The Maze was on display, discretely took pictures of it, and then used sections of these pictures to create the album cover. In disbelief over this disclosure I asked him whether the family had filed a lawsuit against the band and their representatives for copy-right infringement. He told me with an air of exhausted resignation (engendered by moral disgust), that his mother Jean (Kurelek's wife) was too old and tired at the time to engage in what would have been an expensively protracted lawsuit against Van Halen. She decided not to sue.
     This case of less than fair warning remains relatively unknown. When I have disclosed this story to dealers and collectors alike, it engenders the same level of shock I initially experienced when I first heard it. That his work is selling these days is not just because Kurelek is getting press, but also because of the kind of press he is getting. This story is a case in point. It should motivate those of us in the art world to continue creating a positive market for Kurelek's work. In so doing we are, at the very least, giving the art world more than fair warning about the importance of William Kurelek. It is one way we can honor and continue to promote his artistic genius. A painting like The Maze (along with the rest of his work) is an interesting specimen well worth our attentive appreciation. So is the person who painted it.