They are eclectic giants that stayed hidden for years in the Red Deer College vaults.
Now 16 of the largest and least exhibited artworks from the college’s massive collection are seeing daylight again for the first time in many years in Hidden Treasures, an exhibit that runs from Wednesday to Friday at the City Centre Stage gallery.
Curating this art display is the first project former Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling was asked to do after stepping down from public office.
He was approached during his retirement party, which was held at the college.
“It was their gift to me, the honour of curating, or assembling a show from the college collection — and it was a great delight,” he said.
As a private art collector, a former Red Deer museum director, and a one-time member of the Red Deer College art selection committee who had also fundraised for the art purchases during the 1980s, Flewwelling was clearly in his milieu.
“The challenge was what are we going to show?”
He could have opted to pick his favourite works, “but that would have been cheesy,” said Flewwelling.
Instead, while perusing slides of RDC’s collection of 830-plus catalogued artworks, it dawned on him that some of the pieces had never been publicly shown since being acquired.
The works were either too big, too valuable or too fragile to be mounted in the hallways or display cases at the college. Now that RDC has established a gallery space at the rear of the City Centre Stage building it owns, Flewwelling saw a perfect opportunity for displaying some of this striking and little-seen art. He also saw a chance, with the Hidden Treasures exhibit, to showcase some of RDC’s extensive collection for the community.
“I believe, deeply, that this is a fascinating collection,” said the former mayor and teacher.
He noted it was started as an instructional tool.
Since Red Deer has no large gallery to direct visual arts students to, acquiring examples of eclectic art through purchases or donations was the best way to demonstrate the kind of techniques that are taught in the classroom. He believes the public will be floored to discover the diversity of the RDC art collection, which is considered one of the largest of its kind in Western Canada.
It encompasses everything from a disorienting black-and-white photograph taken by Diane Arbus to a wood print done by Renaissance-era German artist Albrecht Durer.
Although neither of those smaller works will be part of this exhibit, viewers will see giant canvases, voluminous tapestries and several blocky and/or fragile sculptures that have been stored up to now in the college vaults.
One of the most unassuming works in the Hidden Treasures exhibit is also the third most valuable in the college collection — Jules Olitski’s Sixth Call, an acrylic painting that looks as monochromatic as packing paper until bright light reveals subtle layers of colour.
The late Ukraine-born painter is considered one of the U.S.’s pre-eminient abstract painters, printmakers and sculptors. Such is Olitski’s reputation, that someone once offered the college a couple of Emily Carr works and a Group-of-Seven painting in trade for this Olitski piece, said Robin Lambert, a college visual arts instructor and collection curator. But an art advisor recommended that RDC hold onto the Sixth Call, as an Olitski piece was far harder to come by.
Lambert admitted this particular painting will be “challenging” for the average viewer. “It’s not easily accessible.”
For those who like more recognizable subject matter in their art, there’s the monoprint Ocean Landscape by Jim Ulrich, or RDC painting instructor David More’s Garden Ceremony with Winter Screen.
The latter depicts intricate patterns of frost on a garden screen, and is one of the largest works on display at four metres long by nearly two metres high. Lambert said the only wall it’s ever graced before was in a corporate office. Among the other enormous works are two by Paul Sloggett: his aptly named Brown Picture, an earth-coloured abstract with textured metallic shapes, and Lido Shift, which resembles an abstract city map.
As well there’s Greg Murdock’s Eccentric Aura in an Aeolian Landscape, a surrealist work inhabited by shapes resembling a tornado, cones and tables, and the late Joseph Reeder’s Inscope, another dark abstract with splashes of bright colour and an outlined square. Reeder was a former RDC instructor.
Ian Cook is presently teaching at the college, and one of his bronze cast abstract sculptures is also exhibited.
Flewwelling said he’s pleased to be able to display some textile art as well, since the college likely has one of the largest fabric art collections in Canada.
This includes two richly dyed tapestries from Joanna Staniszkis’ Tryptic With Stripes. One of Flewwelling’s favorite artists is also represented: Harlan House, whose pieces include a delicately sculpted ceramic vase, teapot and plate.
Now that RDC has an art gallery to display its collection, Flewwelling believes there’s a reason to restart its fundraising program for new art acquisitions. It’s been on hold, since there was no space, previously, to exhibit the existing collection.
Lambert noted that four new art shows are already planned for the City Centre gallery starting in September. Although these will feature works by RDC students, instructors and alumni, Lambert hopes the space that’s getting a new lighting system and a glass entrance door this summer, can also eventually be used to host shows by Red Deer-area and Alberta artists.
He believes this city can really use the exhibit space, following the closure over the last few years of numerous private art galleries.
“To have a space this big is really great. This is really needed, it’s filling a gap.”
The exhibit runs from noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesday June 4, and Friday June 6; and from 2 to 6 p.m. on Thursday June 5.