Archive for June, 2017

Reviews of Gerald Squires

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Gerald Squires

Stan Dragland, with an appreciation by Michael Crummey

$80.00  |  240 pages

—Joan Sullivan, The Telegram (St. John’s)

 

A coffee table book is defined as a large lavish work, usually of non-fiction, meant for display in such a way as to inspire conversation. The term has migrated a bit to include any kind of oversize, gorgeous volume. Its aesthetic is a big part of its allure; these books are often not tilted towards reading, but viewing.

Pedlar Press has made its (consistently award-winning) name producing splendid fiction, poetry, and literary non-fiction by consequential writers (Sara Tilley, Jan Zwicky). Now, a publisher known for books that are works of art produces a book about works of art. “Gerald Squires” explores the multi-disciplinary career of the renowned artist, who died in 2015. Its release coincides with a major retrospective at The Rooms, running throughout the summer, and well worth a visit.

Gerald Squires is a substantial publication, thick with text and image (over 140, in full colour, including personal photos and a sketch on Air Canada paraphernalia), an index, and methodical notes. Most of the writing comes from Stan Dragland, which he carries with a thoughtful heft. Dragland can be amply and compactly theoretical, almost esoteric – and then he’ll quote Ray Guy. His tone is limber and ranging. In discussing the painting “Uprooted,” for instance, (tree roots being a favourite subject for Squires), Dragland reference Monet’s haystacks, the Smallwood-era Resettlement program, and Newfoundland topography in which a tree trying to set its roots has its job cut out for it, all within three paragraphs. Of the painting, he surmises, “Nature has plenty of beauty, but beautiful this ain’t.” Which is no denial of its sway. Pretty is not what drew Squires to the form, and it’s not what he drew from it.

But the spirit of the book is also personal. Dragland often places us right in the studio with Squires, giving the writing the direct immediacy of an ongoing conversation. Squires was lovely to interact with, as he took fledgling artists (and art journalists) seriously. It’s a bit of a cliche to say he touched many lives, but he did, and he certainly captured many faces in his “Book of Souls,” a heavy ledger book of sketched portraits of friends, poets, fellow visual artists, and the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

Squires was also involved, likely reluctantly, in political panels and forums, especially in terms of Newfoundland’s position within Canada, questions of annexation and effacement and what constitutes a Newfoundland artist. It was, and remains, something of a concern to be sieved through a broad perspective. There is a sense conveyed that Squires felt under-appreciated nationally, which I’m not sure is fair, and anyway that ultimately remains to be seen.

Throughout, the book is embedded with poetry and quotations. As the text traces Squires’ vocation and output, the illustrations pace through his influences and productions, including his signature series (“The Wanderer”, “The Boatman,” “The Stations of the Cross”), and all is woven into thematic cohesion.

The book ends with three short, firsthand pieces by poet/novelist Michael Crummey. The juxtaposition of the two authors works well. Dragland wades deep into the waters of politics, identity, religion. The chapters include “Home,” shifting through the talk in the late 1980s about regionalism in art, and whether the proper markers of the scene here was “Newfoundland-for-Newfoundlanders.” Figures like Peter Bell and Don Wright, indelibly linked to that time and that wrangle, are evoked and quoted. “Away” follows Squires as he moves to Toronto as a boy, and started out professionally (and in his marriage to Gail) in Ontario.

“Vision” includes the story of The Ferryland Lighthouse Ghost, and some analysis of the animals Squires revisited in his work. Another section is devoted to “Duende,” a Spanish word for something that comes off the surface, projects into the mind and soul of the observer, and calls itself art. Other chapters are titled for elements so integral to Squires’ work, such as “Poetry,” “Fractured Ones,” “Portrait,” as well as the “Juniper,” and “Starrigan” found so frequently among his subjects; also Squires’ “Signal Hill” has a chapter all to itself. Dragland is a learned, curious interrogator and interpreter and even someone very familiar with Squires and his work will find unexpected, rewarding material here.

Crummey’s concluding pieces, meanwhile, hit a perfect note. Crummey met Squires’s at divergent times and places: a dinner party on Bond Street decades ago; the Bliss Murphy Cancer Clinic at the Health Sciences Centre a few months before Squires’ death. To me, Crummey responds to Squires as we all did: he thought Squires was handsome; he just liked him; he knew it was always good to find yourself in Gerry and Gail’s company. It could be simply the position of a fan, but once Squires’ saw you were truly attentive he engaged you at a level beyond that. And Crummey also writes of seeing Squires’ painting installed at the St. John’s International Airport, hung behind the luggage carts. This is how we all see him now, through his work he has left us, and a portal into what he perceived.

 

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Gerald Squires (Pedlar 2017) is stunning. My acquaintance with Squires prior to this has been confined to a couple of reproductions from his Boatman series that I’ve seen in other books. The Pedlar book is a revelation in two senses: the depth and breadth of his work, its immense power, its reach; and Stan Dragland’s brilliant reading of that reach. We all know that good criticism is rarer than any of good poetry, good story-telling, or good painting. Dragland is the best.

I am now head-over-heels a Squires fan and am thinking about how I’m going to get to see some live. This book is a life-changing gift.

—from a friend of the publisher

 

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Gerald Squires by Stan Dragland (Pedlar Press, 2017)
—George Horan, The Overcast

This book is a gem. It is not a Squires biography, not an academic critical analysis of Squires’ work, not a decorative coffee table book of his paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures. Rather, we are given a unique opportunity to study Squires’ art works within the context of their creation. The book inhabits a curious territory, and author Stan Dragland tips his hat to each of these art mediums in a thoroughly satisfying fashion.

The book contains so many details of Squires’ life that the reader will certainly come away knowing its trials, joys, and successes, feeling as if s/he had just read a fine biographical sketch of Squires’ life. One cannot discuss any aspect of Squires’ work without taking account of his living, and here it is clear that Dragland has done his research. He gives us his carefully considered point of view, but leaves doors open for other opinions as well. Dragland’s writing is articulate, insightful, serious, and entertaining. Organized thematically, in the essay he shares the writings and jottings of Squires throughout, slowly revealing the artist in his process of creation and illuminating his soul.

The plates of the works are stunning, a beautiful presentation of the major paintings combined with equally interesting “doodles” and sketches. Dragland makes the very compelling case for inclusion of Gerald Squires among the truly great artists. Unfortunately, as so often happens, ignorance of Squires’ contributions is widespread. Hopefully this volume will help to address that ignorance.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the contribution of Michael Crummey. His words in the aptly titled “Appreciation” at the end of this book brought me to tears. Great literature like any great art has that power. Stan Dragland, Michael Crummey, and Pedlar Press have given us a true work of art in Gerald Squires.

 

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Much of Squires work here is new to me, though I thought myself to be somewhat familiar with it beforehand, and the man himself is a complete revelation, painted so well in Stan Dragland’s essay. This is exactly what I want to read about an artist, one I love or one I’m discovering, not just biography, but what they are working for and what they are working against, what they know about what they’re doing and what their blind spots are, which only can be seen from outside, and how do all these elements play in the evolution and changes in their work. I love this book. In the present tense. I’ve read it from cover to cover but I’m by no means done with it. Like my beloved David Milne retrospective book, The Painting Place, reading and seeing and discovering this book is like living in a house, or a decommissioned lighthouse, for a time,  one you want to revisit even when you no longer live there. 
 
Dragland’s essay draws these questions out wonderfully: how does a thing get made? How does the maker begin? Where do intention and impulse—or insight and vision—branch? Which tributaries get followed or rejected? How does the painting, the work, become itself and not any of the other things it could’ve easily been.  I enjoyed the exploration of this “without knowing” manner of proceeding in the “Uprooted” section, as this manner is of interest to me personally. I often suspect my own better writing and much of the poetry I admire proceeds in this way.  The work is definitive only as a single roll of the dice or a day’s mood of weather can be: of itself, in that moment. Other eyes and light have their way with it, but it’s the maker’s relation to the making and the made that fascinate me, and the essay sheds generous light—and necessary shadow—on these questions and contexts in terms of Squires’ work but also of the creative act itself. This is further illuminated by Dragland’s inclusion of so many sketches and preparatory studies as well as excerpts from Squires’ own notebook and diaries on his process—material so full of sparks and insights. The detail of the discussion of this material, too, is intimate and confiding in a way that draws me in and along in a process as fascinating as a finished painting. 
 
Squires himself seems a compellingly intelligent and articulate speaker on his own craft and place in the context of the cultural history of Newfoundland, of which I learned a great deal. He also seems like a complex and difficult character, with the kind of Mosaic force of will to follow his singular vision and create a body of work out of his own skill and instinct. Reading the portrait of him makes him feel someone I might’ve known, but regret never having met. Or been drawn by. Did he ever draw you? 
 
His portraits, particularly his sketches, are really wonderful, but it’s his unpeopled views—detailed, long looked-at views—that move me most and illicit the longest looks and squinting consideration from me. The rocks and roots and trees are not landscapes or even characters, but native faces of a long considered and complicatedly loved place. The beautiful double page reproductions of “Where Genesis Begins” and the spread of “The Intruder” to “Cabot Tower, Signal Hill” bares this and bears it out for me. The design of the whole book and reproduction of the paintings and sketches is superbly and sensitively done—dancing as they do with the essay. I’m sure this was a team effort but kudos to Beth Oberholzer for her work here. It’s a stunning book. 
This is a remarkable tribute Gerald Squires, and the affection and friendship for the man are evident in and through the insight and intelligence of Dragland’s reading of his work and its context. It’s a rich, complex and detailed landscape that rewards long and repeated viewing. I can only imagine he would be very pleased.
—Jack Davis, poet, Faunics (Pedlar, November 2017)