William Kurelek, This is the Nemesis, 1965. Mixed media on masonite. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Gift of Mrs. J. A. McCuaig, 1966. (WAG)
Kurelek.ca is not just an online resource containing the paintings of iconic Ukrainian/Canadian artist William Kurelek (1927-1977). It is more like a looking glass into the very being of this celebrated, tortured, and highly religious artist.
A partnership between three institutions -- the WAG, Art Gallery of Hamilton, and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria -- Kurelek.ca serves as a full complement to the exhibition William Kurelek: The Messenger, which will be touring all three galleries over the following year. The website houses Kurelek's paintings, a detailed biography of the artist, an educational section aimed at presenting the artist's more pastoral paintings to school children, and a section where one can view excerpts from the 1970 documentary film, The Maze: The Story of William Kurelek. It is both easily navigable and aesthetically pleasing.
While William Kurelek is probably more well known for his depictions of life on the Canadian prairies, Kurelek.ca presents all aspects of the artist's work, including his nightmarish introspective paintings which are laden with religious imagery.
Moving an artist's collection online has become commonplace in the art world, and while this can raise certain issues for museums and galleries -- namely the fact that an audience can now stay home and view a collection online, which could be seen as taking money away from an exhibit and challenging tradition curatorial elements like how an exhibition is physically displayed -- the curators of Kurelek.ca are not troubled with any challenges to tradition.
Andrew Kear, WAG Curator of Historical Canadian Art and co-curator of Kurelek.ca, finds that the online world is not a threat to an art gallery, but rather a compliment: "...Websites have been able to serve as a kind of parallel venue to (or against) the traditional gallery space, one that is virtual, democratic, (usually) free, and immediate. Visitors can maneuver the architecture of the digital world and obtain information in a radically self-selecting way.
On the other hand, websites can also be used to expand on an existing exhibition, and to serve not so much an alternative venue but rather to obtain a kind of extending experience, a surrogate means to topping up and temporally sustaining the museum experience." Kear continues that, "as a curator the online world presents an opening into possibility, a way to expand on existing programming or an alternate universe within which to construct new kinds of exhibitions that obey a very different set of conditions."
One of the "extended experiences" that is offered at Kurelek.ca is the "Points of Interest" feature. This function is quite intriguing as it allows the viewer to know what Kurelek was thinking, or more appropriately what his intended message was, when he created these images. By clicking on featured sections of certain paintings Kurelek's works are illuminated through quotes from the artists, passages from
his autobiography Someone With Me
, and even quotes from people who were part of Kurelek's life, like his art therapy instructor.
And it must be mentioned that the fashion in which this "Points of Interest" feature operates is pretty cool: when you click on the highlighted white dots (the points of interest) the screen zooms in and pans across the painting to the point, much like a camera moving in a film. (The only glitch here is that this feature seems to load faster on certain paintings while on others you are sometimes left waiting for the website to catch up with your desire to explore).
This is all especially effective for Kurelek's painting I Spit on Life
, where the points of interest add a historical narrative to the visual presentation of Kurelek's oft-tortured existence. With the added ability to zoom-in on the minutest detail (all while keeping the images in a high-resolution), this online presentation of Kurelek's paintings is nothing short of mesmerizing.
I found myself exploring the tiniest details in each of Kurelek's works; examining everything from the hellish figures inherent in his highly religious and self-reflective pieces, to merely being awed at his ability to show two people having a conversation amongst a crowd (Manitoba Party
, Lumberjack's Breakfast
There is certainly a voyeuristic element to viewing art in this online medium -- with the movement of the camera (if you could call it that) on the painting you can't help but feel that you are indeed watching the subjects in Kurelek's works. For Kear, this was one of the main goals for the website, as he states "interactivity and usability were crucial aims in designing kurelek.ca."
There is a discussion section under the paintings too, that so far is under-used, but one would hope that it will help foster dialogue on Kurelek's work. Andrew Kear finds that the nature of Kurelek's paintings is most fitting for discussion. "The sometimes controversial and narrative quality of Kurelek's work, and his life, makes it an ideal subject for viewers to engage in discussions about, so the discussion function was also essential" said Kear. Let's hope that some true debate can arise and that the online audience will treat Kurelek.ca as more than just a place to view his paintings.
Kurelek.ca will be available for online viewing for the next five years. I highly recommend this site for both Kurelek admirers and people unfamiliar with this iconic Canadian painter. Give yourself an hour on the website and you will come away feeling incredibly familiar with this man (and that hour will fly by, believe me).
The actual physical exhibit, William Kurelek: The Messenger, opens to the public tomorrow (Friday, September 30th) at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
As well, on Thursday, October 12th at 7 p.m., the WAG will be presenting the Canadian premiere of the film William Kurelek's The Maze, which will be followed by a Q & A with director Nick Young.
Painting in Middle: William Kurelek, Manitoba Party, 1964. Oil on masonite. Purchased 1965. National Gallery of Canada (no. 14761). (WAG)
Listen to Andrew Kear being interviewed by Information Radio's Terry MacLeod (from Thursday, September 29th) on the work of William Kurelek.
Mike Green, SCENE writer