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"Ducal Palace Evening Venezia"
Harry Kiyooka, "Ducal Palace Evening Venezia", oil on board, 1995
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"Rive Delgi Schiavoni Venezia"
Harry Kiyooka, "Rive Delgi Schiavoni Venezia", oil on board, 1995.
Venetian Paintings, November 26 to December 23, 2011 Herringer Kiss Gallery, Calgary
BY: Monique Westra
While Harry Kiyooka (b. 1928) has been neither as prolific nor as ambitious as many other artists in this province, he does occupy a singular place in the history of art in Alberta. As a professor at the University of Calgary, he influenced a generation of artists. Later, following his retirement in 1981, he continued to be a vigorous advocate for the local arts scene. One of his most important achievements was the foundation of the Calgary Contemporary Arts Society (CCAS) where, as president, he played a seminal role in the establishment of the Triangle Gallery in 1988. His many contributions to the visual art community have been recognized in a number of prestigious awards and honours. Yet, the range of his own art hasn’t yet been as well known or appreciated as it should be.
Kiyooka remains best-known for a series of exquisite Aegean paintings executed in the 1970s — an austerely beautiful and refined series of monumental abstractions. In 2005, he astounded the art community with an exciting exhibition (his first in 30 years) of a series of colourful, dynamic abstracts done in the 1960s that had been almost unknown. In the spring of 2011, Kiyooka and his wife, sculptor Katie Ohe, announced the creation of the KO Arts Centre, a unique foundation to promote contemporary art through exhibitions, workshops, symposia, and lectures.
And now he’s come up with another surprise. In late November, the Herringer Kiss gallery in Calgary will present a “new” body of work, featuring one of the most challenging subjects in the history of art — Venice. Who knew that this abstract artist has been painting images of Venice for half a century? The exhibition will feature approximately 20 works, including oil paintings, sketches and watercolours. All the paintings are representational, with clearly recognizable subject matter, rendered in a vigorous style that can be described as a cross between impressionism and expressionism.
The Venice works don’t constitute a series exactly, but instead represent a beloved subject which the artist returned to over and over again, over an extended period of time. Kiyooka had spent three memorable and formative years (1958 to 1961) as a young artist in Italy, returning many times from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Venice was a source of endless fascination for him, and his youthful rapture became a lifelong obsession. He was enamoured with the city — its stunning palaces, churches, museums, bridges and canals, and especially its light. Kiyooka admired the Venetian artists of the Renaissance, like Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto and Veronese; the 18th century veduti painters Canaletto and Guardi; and Turner and Monet, who captured the mysterious and shifting beauty of the city in the 19th century. Like them, Kiyooka painted the famous sites at different times of day and in variable conditions, including the Grand Canal with its resplendent palazzi and the Piazza San Marco.
Kiyooka felt compelled to grapple with the formal problems presented by this famous but elusive subject. The oil paintings are studio works based on photographs, sketches and watercolours done over the years in situ. The canvases share an intense sense of painterly ardour, built up with layers of heavily encrusted impasto, animated by evanescent light which glows on the surfaces of structures and in reflections on the water. There’s something deeply private about these passionate works, wrestled from time, place and imagination. This may explain Kiyooka’s reluctance to show them publicly. Seen together for the first time, these beautiful paintings will reveal what an extraordinary painter Kiyooka is: truly a painter’s painter.