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Private Collection. Photo by Troy Mamer.
"Way Out West"
David Thauberger, "Way Out West," 2004, acrylic on panel, 24” x 36”.
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Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery.
David Thauberger, "Dance Hall," 1980, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 45.3” x 68.1”.
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Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery.
David Thauberger, "At Home," 1983, screenprint, 22” x 15”.
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Private Collection. Photo by Don Hall.
David Thauberger, "Prayer Home," 2004, acrylic, window screen on canvas, 66” x 90”.
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Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank. Photo copyright Brandon Clarida Image Services.
"Evil Kneevil Jumps Snake River Canyon"
David Thauberger, "Evil Kneevil Jumps Snake River Canyon," 1973, earthenware, glaze, acrylic, metal drive chain and wood, 14.6” x 14.6 x 13”.
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David Thauberger, "Clear Lake," 2013, acrylic on canvas, 42" x 54".
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Copyright David Thauberger.
David Thauberger, "Vanishing Point," 2013, acrylic on canvas, 42" x 54".
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Photo by Don Hall.
"David Thauberger in his Regina studio"
David Thauberger in his Regina studio.
COLLECTING AND COMMUNITY
The Art of David Thauberger
By Margaret Bessai
Part workshop, part memory palace, David Thauberger’s studio is a long room with high ceilings on the second floor of the old press club building in Regina’s warehouse district. His worktables hold a large slide library, stacks of acrylic paint and clean brushes laid out in a neat row several feet long. Jars are filled with toothbrushes, combs and scratching tools. At the far end of the room, light shines through a window onto a canvas in progress on the wall. The carpet below is textured by the edges of airbrush oversprays, and a wooden crate sits up-ended as a stool. Thauberger works here several hours each day, before heading out for afternoon coffee and a quick peek at a thrift shop or antique sale.
The walls of this utilitarian space are transformed by a wonderfully diverse collection of postcards, paintings and prints hung salon style. An original drawing by Scottish folk artist Scottie Wilson sits, framed, next to antique paint-by-number landscapes and prints by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. A traditional Cree birch-bark biting pattern is posted by the door, just above the light switch, and above that, an image of the Pietà. Postcards of the Eiffel Tower are nested with photos of rural transmission towers, invitations to past exhibitions, and images of Thauberger’s own paintings – mountains, suburban houses, a small-town dance hall. Snapshots from an awards ceremony are tucked next to photos from a fishing trip. Reproductions of Egyptian antiquities and Japanese wood-block prints hang next to postcards of work by Frida Kahlo, Marc Chagall and Fernand Léger.
This richly eclectic space is both a miniature history of Thauberger’s diverse career and a thumbnail collage of the art collection he started in university as a personal museum for study. Beginning by trading with colleagues and then buying art when he could, he grew his collection strategically over the years. He owns a wide variety of original art and also collects antique postcards and funky tiki mugs.
It’s remarkable how closely Thauberger’s work as an artist is intertwined with his research and collecting. His exhibition catalogues often list work from his collection, and during his investiture as a member of the Order of Canada, he was cited for “the promotion and preservation of Canadian heritage and folk art” as well as his work as a painter, sculptor and educator. In planning Thauberger’s current retrospective, the first comprehensive overview of his work, Sandra Fraser, associate curator at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, and Timothy Long, head curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, chose the relationship between Thauberger and his community as an organizing theme. The show, which opens its national tour at the Mendel, places paintings, sculptures and prints that Thauberger produced between 1971 and 2009 in context with the work he collected, providing a rare opportunity to examine his artistic process.
Artists often struggle for a response when people ask where they get their ideas. Although it’s basically a quest for an entry point, it’s almost like asking a magician to explain, and there’s really no satisfying answer. In practical terms, a big part of the process is work. Courting creativity, like athletic training (and sleight of hand), involves honing craftsmanship and practising every day. Artists do research, ask questions and then spend time in thought. Often described as deep creative play, this thinking can occur through doing – exploring what-ifs while making things. Thoughts can also tumble around inside an artist’s head until an idea precipitates fully formed, ready to create. Community gives artists a place to discuss history and technique. Each step contributes to being open to receive an idea. Even really fantastical projects can begin in quite ordinary places.
Many of Thauberger’s ideas have come from his travels. He is never without his camera – a Pentax K-1000, the workhorse of SLRs. It is his sketchbook, and he keeps it loaded with slide film. On road trips, he often stops to take photos of buildings within landscapes. Attracted to interesting shadows and patterns, he shoots with a 50-mm lens to minimize distortion. His preference is to gather images in spring or fall, when trees are bare. Once developed, his slides go into an immense image bank, which he refers to and thinks about. Most of his visual composition takes place in his head.
Painting is the execution of Thauberger’s thinking – he is a collagist building up images through juxtapositions of pattern, texture and technique. When he has decided on an image, he selects several slides to project on a canvas, then drafts a composite. He paints methodically. Instead of applying an initial wash, he starts with shadows in windows, the deepest points. Finished paintings hold together so well they are often described as hyper-real. Their visual flatness is emphasized in reproductions, but viewed in person, surfaces reveal tactile spatter and even real objects glued to the canvas.
Thauberger says he follows two rules. First, he minimizes any evidence of his hand. He feels it’s important to “keep the wrist out of it – to paint without fussiness, to be straight ahead and as direct as possible.” His second rule is to break rules. His strategy of systematic and playful opposition began during his undergraduate years at the University of Regina. Although he loved his first class with Russell Yuristy in 1967, he says he hated the dominant approach to art in Regina, which art critic Nancy Tousley has described as an “imported form of late modernist abstraction whose roots were in European and American modernism … an empty formalist language without an immediate or relevant context to give it life.”
Working to find his artistic voice, and rebelling at the influence of Clement Greenberg and the Emma Lake workshops, Thauberger found freedom in the sculpture department, particularly through the explosive playfulness of David Gilhooly, a funk ceramicist from California. Thauberger’s earliest works are in clay. Painting and printmaking came after graduate school in California, where he encountered works on paper by American artists William Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, Joseph Raffael and Roy De Forest.
When Thauberger returned to Saskatchewan, he experimented with subject matter and tried to break each art-making convention as he encountered it. His early screen prints have spare colours and abstracted compositions, but feature animals or grain elevators, and are executed with flocked textures that consciously evoke black-velvet paintings. In 1974, Thauberger began working for the Saskatchewan Arts Board, cataloguing their art collection and visiting artists across the province. He was particularly impressed with folk artists Wesley and Eva Dennis as well as W.C. McCargar. He admired their drive and how they took inspiration from what they knew, rather than following art-world fashions.
Thauberger continues to question truisms with perverse glee. Most notably, he ignores the tenets of the golden mean and classical proportion, typically setting his horizon line very low or nearly dead centre instead of two-thirds from the top. He applies paint with a comb, a toothbrush, an airbrush – and sometimes even pours it on the canvas. A dealer’s warning that purple “doesn’t sell” prompted him to paint a series of purple water lilies and, with wry humour, add titles like Slough.
The paintings most representative of Thauberger’s work are landscapes, houses and small businesses presented in full-frontal view to emphasize their symmetry. To me, these iconic and essential images of our domestic architecture have a similar aesthetic to photographs by German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, who documented factories and mine sites, finding patterns in the repetition of utilitarian structures. Like them, Thauberger usually excludes people. He says “figures make the subject of the image about an event” and he is “not interested in preserving a specific moment.” Instead, he presents a world that feels current, but also timeless. Though representational, details are simplified and abstracted.
I like to think the title for Thauberger’s retrospective, Road Trips and Other Diversions, was inspired by a quotation from Gilhooly, Thauberger’s early mentor. In response to a question on fame and fortune in the art world, Gilhooly wrote: “Having arrived is boring. The journey is what makes life interesting and worth living.” The road trip evokes both external landscape and internal journey, and if you can forgive a truism, to take a road trip with someone is to come to know him.
Road Trips and Other Diversions runs to June 15 at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. It will travel to the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary as well as galleries in Charlottetown and Windsor.