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Steve Martin curates art exhibit in Toronto

TORONTO – Steve Martin is a man of many talents: stand-up comedian; actor; juggler; banjo player; playwright.

Add art gallery curator to the list.

The legendary comedian is curating Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibit, “The Idea Of North: The Paintings Of Lawren Harris,” through Sept. 18, taking the role normally held by Andrew Hunter, the gallery’s curator of Canadian Art.

During a media preview, Hunter said he accepted the challenge.

“These works have never been together, all in the same room. And you wonder, how are they going to look together?” Martin said. Hunter said the exhibit contains “the core of what was (displayed) in the U.S., but in Toronto there’s a new prologue,” acknowledging Harris lived in the city, with his early work reflecting his experience as an artist in a city.

Martin elaborated on his feelings regarding art and Harris, telling of “feeling awestruck,” and “having a very complicated feeling where you want to have access over and over again,” noting “I own a couple of Harris paintings.”

He went on saying “I’ve worked on several films here (Canada). Most of my friends are Canadian. I like to hang out with comedians,” mentioning Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short. “I’ve been around Canada. And seen the actual landscape Harris was offering.”

The landscape Harris initially offered, featured in the prologue, begins in St. John’s Ward, much of which now comprises Nathan Phillips Square, towered over by sleek, modern Toronto City Hall.

“It was a tough, gritty city,” Hunter said of what Harris saw in the ward. “And he was troubled by what he saw,” adding “Toronto has always been multicultural and diverse. That was a new idea in the ’70s But it wasn’t new.”

In the collection is a painting of an Eaton manufacturing building from 1911 at Yonge and Albert streets, where now stands the southern section of the Eaton Centre. A foreboding structure, it appears to loom over ward dwellers’ lives, as if suggesting, this is what you will do (work in a factory), and this is where you will do it. Sentiments expressed in Harris’ poem “A Note of Colour,” note that “in a part of the city that’s ever shrouded in sooty smoke, and amid huge, hard buildings, hides a gloomy house of broken grey roughcast, like a sickly sin in a callous soul.”

The lines overlook some of this exhibit, which include houses Harris had painted. The theme here seemed to be houses, including a painting of a row of six houses, a red house, houses painted in winter. It’s hard not to be troubled by what you see.

Harris’ houses went from drab and ramshackle to colorful, comfortable looking abodes. I wondered whether, if even in St. John’s Ward, Harris began to discover his own “invincible summer.”

Harris was a founding member of the Group of Seven, a contingent of Canadian landscape painters, though their work was not limited to the land. But among his early work is a portrait of Salem Bland, a United Church of Canada minister who wrote against capitalism and favored the ordination of women. While portrayed as an austere looking figure, Bland it is said “informed Harris’ social conscience.”

“Some artists need to change,” Martin said while addressing the exhibit’s media preview. “Sometimes you have to start anew. To start fresh. He was really painting the idea of north. Though I wanted to come up with a new name. I thought of Steve … Steve,” Martin joked. “But the idea of north really worked.”

“Harris’ north is an idea,” Hunter said at the preview.

Added Martin: “These are paintings of specific places,” and Harris’ idea is “a theory of a mountain.” And that idea and theory manifests in Harris’ words displayed as follows: “If we view a great mountain soaring in the sky, it may excite us, evoke an uplifted feeling in us. The artist takes that response and its feelings and shapes it on canvas in paint so that when finished it contains the experience.”

So Harris took his brush north. Into the land of ice and snow. Painting bold scenes, isolated peaks, dark water beyond barren shorelines, monumental icebergs and sprawling glaciers.

Whether Martin will continue expanding himself as an art curator is unknown. He said of Lawren Harris that “He painted 10 to 15 years of north. He had a pretty good run.”

Martin’s run is longer, and given his many interests, may never end.

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