Instantly recognizable

Joan Sullivan
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Arts and Culture 'I think he had a vision in his childhood, a vision early in life, and he stuck with it'

The art of Conrad Furey is instantly recognizable: the Expressionistic curvature of the figures, the deliberately naÏve arrangements of colour and form, the iconography of outport labour on the sea or in domestic interiors. Furey, who was born in Baie Verte but left as a teenager to eventually settle in Hamilton, Ont., was largely self-taught and entirely self-directed.

"I think he had a vision in his childhood, a vision early in life, and he stuck with it," said visual artist Gerald Squires.

"Man with Mermaid"

The art of Conrad Furey is instantly recognizable: the Expressionistic curvature of the figures, the deliberately naÏve arrangements of colour and form, the iconography of outport labour on the sea or in domestic interiors. Furey, who was born in Baie Verte but left as a teenager to eventually settle in Hamilton, Ont., was largely self-taught and entirely self-directed.

"I think he had a vision in his childhood, a vision early in life, and he stuck with it," said visual artist Gerald Squires.

"And he kept this childhood image that he had, and kept at it, even though at times it wasn't the best idea in the world to paint about Newfoundland. I always admired him for that."

Squires was standing in the Emma Butler Gallery in St. John's, surrounded by the oil on canvas paintings that will make up the Furey retrospective opening at the gallery today. Squires knew Furey a little, and likes his work a lot. When Squires looks at Furey's paintings he sees a growth in technique and style, along with a loyalty and faithfulness to a very personal and specific imagery.

"What strikes me the most about his work is that he hasn't changed; his work, the images, have not changed, since he was a young man. They've gotten better, painterly-wise, but the images have not changed," Squires said. This is not a drawback, but an element that limns the richness of Furey's work.

"I believe he got some kind of an epiphany when he was very young.

And it stuck with him all his life. He knew that was the way he had to paint. And he was developing that image that he saw of Newfoundland."

This was very individual. "Nobody paints Newfoundland like this," Squires said. "He's not a folk painter. You can't call him a folk painter. Because he doesn't fit the 'folk' image. It's not necessarily about nostalgia all the time. Folk work being done in a very modern way, it deals with nostalgia, picking berries and gathering wood. But there's more to this work than just nostalgia. He's just a man that has his own vision of things."

Furey also resisted all the trends unfolding around him.

"What amazes me is that he's managed to keep this distinct vision, this concept, and not be influenced by what was happening in Canada. He hasn't been influenced by other people. He was never influenced by Canadian art, which has gotten a little away from the Group of Seven."

This distinction adds to Furey's appeal. His work is widely collected, and was much commissioned. Though it stemmed from Newfoundland, its attraction was universal. "You wouldn't think about it being Newfoundland, necessarily," Squires said.

"I wouldn't. It could be anywhere, except that we know that it's Newfoundland. It's doesn't feel like a Newfoundland landscape or anything. We know it is Newfoundland, just as we know it is Conrad Furey.

"The way he twists his figures, they're out of proportion, but beautifully out of proportion. Like an early van Gogh drawing. You can't judge him on drawing because he draws deliberately out of proportion."

Furey did not date much of his work, but the progression of his ability and dexterity are still noticeable. His palette became darker and more dramatic. His configurations became a little more detailed and modeled, and less an abstract system of related shapes. The brushwork became more dynamic.

Not that he verged on realism. Squires points out an area of "Man With Mermaid."

"He has no care for things like wrist of the hand. It becomes shapes rather than anything anatomically correct. They're not anatomically correct. If they were they wouldn't work as well on a canvas. If that was a perfect guy, with a perfect mermaid, in a perfect boat, it would be just an illustration."

And Furey always kept painting from memory, or "what he calls memory, and what I say is the vision he had when he was very young," Squires said.

"Like all painting, when you do one image, it suggests another, it just continues, but you have to make that first image."

Furey is unquestionably a major Newfoundland artist - but where exactly is his place in this field? "I'm not really sure where he fits," said Squires, after some consideration. "Because there's no real Newfoundland style. We all do our own thing. Christopher (Pratt) does his, I do mine, David (Blackwood)'s doing his. You can't say there's a Newfoundland school of art. Like you can for the realists in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, and you can say, 'There's a Maritime painting.' But you can't say that with Newfoundland art, because a Newfoundlander, I believe, is more individualistic, and we insist on doing our own thing. That's why we're here, I believe. Because you're free to do that here."

"An Extra/Ordinary Life," Conrad Furey 1954-2008, continues at the Emma Butler Gallery until May 31.

Organizations: Group of Seven, Newfoundland school

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Baie Verte, Hamilton St. John's Canada New Brunswick Nova Scotia

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  • AR
    July 02, 2010 - 13:28

    Before reading the article, I looked at the painting ' Man with Mermaid ' and it reminded me of the painting style of Vincent van Gogh. I know very little about painting styles so I was pleasantly surprised to read Gerald Squire's comment that Conrad Furey's painted figures are out of proportion, like early van Gogh . Wonder if Conrad Furey was influenced in some way by van Gogh, whether knowingly or unknowingly ?

  • AR
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    Before reading the article, I looked at the painting ' Man with Mermaid ' and it reminded me of the painting style of Vincent van Gogh. I know very little about painting styles so I was pleasantly surprised to read Gerald Squire's comment that Conrad Furey's painted figures are out of proportion, like early van Gogh . Wonder if Conrad Furey was influenced in some way by van Gogh, whether knowingly or unknowingly ?