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Photo: Bob Blakey.
"Harry Kiyooka in his studio"
Harry Kiyooka in his studio with a work from his Aniene River Valley series, painted in Italy in the 1950s, on the floor beside him.
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"Woman / Green Striped Blouse"
Roy Kiyooka, "Woman / Green Striped Blouse," 1953, oil on Masonite, 13.8” x 24”
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"The Skein of Time"
Harry Kiyooka, "The Skein of Time," 1966, acrylic polymer on canvas, 70” x 70”.
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Roy Kiyooka, "Polynesian," 1971, silkscreen, 25” x 30”.
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Harry Kiyooka, "Asuntina," 1960, oil on canvas, 13.3” x 17.8”.
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"Anticoli Corrado, Italia, Anniene River Valley"
Harry Kiyooka, "Anticoli Corrado, Italia, Anniene River Valley," 1961, 18” x 22”
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Photo: Michael de Courcy.
Roy Kiyooka, "Ottoman 1," 1971, silkscreen, 21" x 25".
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Roy Kiyooka, "Calgary Downtown," 1950, ink on paper, 28.5” x 21”.
KIYOOKA: Coming of Age
Calgary show looks at early years of artists Roy and Harry Kiyooka
By Mary-Beth Laviolette
Both Harry Kiyooka, and his older brother, Roy, accomplished much as artists. But it is Roy who is better known in the Canadian art world. So, a case for sibling rivalry? It hardly seems so. Since Roy’s death 20 years ago, Harry has kept an artistic vigil for his brother, first with a 2001 tribute exhibition, and again this summer with their first joint exhibition in 50 years.
This latest show builds on the first, which recalled Roy’s life and times, starting with his birth in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents and his early life in Calgary’s working-class neighbourhood of Victoria Park. Now, Harry is adding another dimension with a show at Calgary’s Herringer Kiss Gallery that features paintings and prints from the 1950s to the 1970s, when both men were making their way in the art world.
Like many of their generation, the Kiyookas were eager to shed what was then considered the parochialism of a Canadian art scene dominated by landscape and embrace the international avant-garde, especially abstraction. Reflecting on that idealistic period, Roy later wrote: “We were birthing our own painterly vision/s despite and not because of the hullabaloo in New York and/or Paris: We were of a generation who felt they were in tune with the signatures of the global village.”
For the exhibition’s title, Harry, 85, chose A Parallax: Roy Kiyooka – Harry Kiyooka. He sees in the concept of parallax a metaphor for how he and his brother took similar – but not quite parallel tracks – to arrive at their celebrated abstractions. Harry ably sums it up: “I took the academic route.” One of the first Canadian artists to receive a graduate studio degree – when such a thing was not available in Canada – Harry also holds three other university degrees, a striking accomplishment for a man whose family was uprooted as “enemy aliens” after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and left to tend a meagre farm north of Edmonton. For Roy, it meant four years of gruelling farm work and no high-school diploma. Harry, two years younger, set his sights on higher education, partly, he says, so he could support his parents in the future.
When the war ended, Roy enrolled in “the Tech” (now the Alberta College of Art and Design), an experience he likens to a rebirth. It was a propitious four years with support from Jock Macdonald, Illingworth Kerr, Luke and Vivian Lindoe, Stan Perrott, the inimitable Maxwell Bates, and Jim and Marion Nicoll. Roy’s early exhibition career was active – by age 30, he had 10 solo shows to his credit. He also spent an influential eight-month residency at Mexico’s Instituto Allende with fellow Calgary painter Ron Spickett and, near the end of the 1950s, made contact with some of the biggest names in American art, including Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg, at the Emma Lake workshops in Saskatchewan.
At the time, Roy was teaching at the Regina College of Art, where he worked amongst other like-minded painters who shared national headlines in 1961 as the Regina Five, after the National Gallery of Canada organized its exhibition, Five Painters from Regina. It might have been the Regina Six, had Roy not by then moved west to become an instructor at the Vancouver School of Art. It was in Vancouver that his initial impact as a hard-edge abstract painter and his later work as a multimedia interdisciplinary artist secured his place in the Canadian art canon.
Harry’s formative period included three years of study in Italy, where he was imbued with a classical muse that found its near-perfect expression in his monumental 1970s abstractions of the Aegean Series. By then, he was influencing a younger generation of artists at the University of Calgary, where he taught for 28 years, starting in 1961.
Many of Roy’s works are now stored at Harry’s Calgary home, which he shares with Katie Ohe, a sculptor. Harry points to a 1950 ink on paper, Calgary Downtown, an exacting night scene, and observes: “Roy was always an urban artist.” Harry, less bohemian, says the countryside always seemed to catch his attention, even in his early abstracts, when the colours and atmospheric effects of Italy inspired Anticoli Corrado, a series of gestural, non-representational oil paintings. The exhibition also includes two early portraits, Roy’s Woman / Green Striped Blouse and Harry’s Asuntina. Depicted in pensive moods, the women are distilled in modernist fashion with minimal detail, shallow pictorial space and bold, flattened colour.
As the 1960s progressed, both brothers showed themselves conversant with the clear-cut shapes and flat colours of hard-edge geometric abstraction. Roy, however, took the lead, becoming an art star by the end of the decade. His work was shown at Expo 67 and other centennial shows across the country. His striking silkscreen prints capture the excitement of the time. Integral is the presence of his signature ellipse, which he said was a “reference to the physical reality which I have experienced.” Meanwhile, Harry followed his brother’s lead with works like Skein of Time, which nonetheless show how his own sense of colour, materiality and optical effect were evolving.
Roy’s decision to stop painting in 1969 came as a surprise for many. “People were very taken aback when Roy packed it in,” says Harry, noting the international attention Roy’s work had attracted. Harry did not follow Roy’s lead and, as a result, developed a more varied and significant body of painting and printmaking over a longer period. But Roy’s new practice in photo-based art, poetry and film would lead him on to even greater acclaim.