Kurelek is worth the trip to Hamilton

Take a close look: this image will stay with you a long, long time.

I will never forget the first time I experienced a painting by William Kurelek. Many years ago I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario for a special exhibition, but the only thing I can remember was a painting (unrelated to the show) that struck me as I left the gallery.

It appeared to be a simple country setting. In the centre was a large family huddled together and posing for a group portrait. The innocent prairie land surrounded them. Very charming.

Then I took a closer look. Something told me that there had to be more to this painting. I scanned the empty fields, simple homes, dirt road – and suddenly the crucified man in the bottom-left corner hit me. Because he is positioned in front of the cross-shaped tree, the dead (or dying) man is hardly visible to the viewer. Of course, the family in the painting can see him clearly, but they just don’t seem to notice or care.

Within seconds I went from “what a pretty painting”  to “oh my God!” That is the brilliance of William Kurelek.

The painting, titled “In the Autumn of Life,”  is one of 80-plus works currently on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until April 29. And it was well worth the short trek from Toronto to see it “in the flesh” among many of his other great works. The exhibition is the first major survey of Kurelek’s portfolio – he composed more than 2000 paintings in a quarter century – in about 30 years. Hamilton is the lone stop in eastern Canada (it was previously in Winnipeg and will close in Victoria).

The exhibit, called “The Messenger,” is divided into six sections covering major themes in Kurelek’s art and life, including his prairie childhood, Ukrainian heritage, religion, isolation and apocalyptic visions.

His decision to pursue a career in art was in defiance of his father, who wanted him to follow in the family’s farming footsteps. However, Kurelek chose to take his own path, and a difficult one it was. He battled emotional difficulties and sought psychiatric care for depression while living in England during his twenties. Fortunately he failed at a suicide attempt and found success in his first artistic exhibition.

Kurelek does not portray prairie life as simple or ideal or innocent, and “In the Autumn of Life” is a good example. Another is “Dinnertime on the Prairies,” which any other artist might have portrayed as a family sitting down for a country supper of corn and potatoes. Not Kurelek. He gives us an image of a crucified Jesus against a prairie backdrop instead.

It is not all darkness and despair, however. One of the last paintings in the exhibit is called “The Painter,” showing Kurelek himself sketching from the inside of a red VW Beetle (half the car is cropped out of the picture) against the prairie landscape. He looks like he’s enjoying himself.

Prepare to see such masterpieces as “The Ukrainian Pioneer” (a six-panel series depicting his family’s origins and life in Canada); “This is the Nemesis” (in case you ever wondered what Hamilton would look like at the time of a nuclear blast); and my personal favourite, “Glimmering Tapers ‘Round the Day’s Dead Sanctities” (a magnificent depiction of the Northern Lights that captures every essence of their beauty and mystery).

If you haven’t had a good reason to visit Hamilton lately, it doesn’t get much better than Kurelek. He is one of the few artists with the ability to both delight and fright, often in the same frame.