On 13 June, a dozen paintings will arrive in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with their curator, Robert Houle, talking and demonstrating their various strategies for presenting history and memory in a way that is accessible to audiences who would never have considered hanging a painting in their living room. This exhibition – titled “Red Is Beautiful: Abstract Painting from the Studio of Robert Houle” – coincides with the ACID conference at the AGO, where Houle will give a Sunday afternoon public talk that is part of the 2018 meeting’s theme of “Transitory Texts”.
In preparing this exhibition and in answering questions from the AGO staff and members of the public who have asked about it, I have been struck by the number of responses to my proposals that build on familiar themes expressed in artworks from earlier in my career: it is related to memory or story or presence or intention or current conditions. Art in the past plays a role in today’s world; art today serves a purpose in our history.
Because paintings are common in our daily lives, the notion of representation seems to resonate for contemporary viewers of Houle’s art. This is not surprising. The world has changed considerably in my lifetime and there is probably more tension between the representation of “who we are” in the life and work of art than ever before. The new role of representation in today’s visual culture invites contemplation of this subject in terms that are deeply personal and experiential.
Robert Houle’s Resurrection: of Christ (c. 1971), sits at the back of the gallery. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist
Houle’s art is all about his family’s Jewish heritage and his experience with it. His family was among the more privileged ones of its day. He explains: “The relationships people had with the food they ate in this place, and how they ate the food, and what words they used and in the end how that image is seen in their memory: that is the interesting thing. That is what makes the Jewish experience so interesting.”
Houle’s paintings are known for their farsightedness about contemporary issues and concerns, including refugees and asylum seekers. In this exhibition, the coinciding concerns with the survival of particular places become visible as Houle demonstrates how his paintings can be seen as resonant responses to specific sites – like Portobello Road in London and to Toronto.
Houle’s work in the gallery tells a personal story about his family’s heritage, but the nature of his task – and his chosen methods – reveal new perspectives on the connection between the visual arts and memory and history. In his enthusiasm, Houle plans to set up “the place where they are going to hang my art next week and it will look back at this place and the history of this place and the story that this place has to tell about itself”.
When I learned of his intention, I recognized the decision-making process of images, both individual and collective, as crucial to how we understand and remember the past. Houle’s project – and his words about it – remind us of how art can relate directly to the questions of memory and humanity, and why it is important for all of us to have a picture of our own past in the present, present and future. The works in this exhibition are selected for their representation of memory and are arranged to bring particular sites and context to the audience.