LONDON, ONTARIO – Nearly 40 years into its existence, Museum London has wisely rejigged that never-optimally realized gallery space just north of the restaurant and down a flight of stairs that always felt like a dismal and under-attended adjunct to the rest of the building. There was a rather pointless reflecting pool down there when our spiffy new art gallery opened in 1980 but it was summarily sealed over when some poor blue-hair toppled into it at an opening. Thankfully, she didn’t sue, which seems to be a generational thing. Our ‘lady of the dunking’ didn’t come of age in a time as enlightened as our own when every witless mishap is routinely exploited for personal profit. But ever since her accidental baptism, that lower gallery has had the feeling of a poorly designed space that badly needed to be rethought.
True, with the whole western wall of the space now taken up by a two-storey high window looking out onto the historic forks of the Thames, it has now become another one of those dreaded ‘people places’ for miscellaneous meetings and functions and will never again be used to exhibit art that can’t withstand extended exposure to direct sunlight. Most kinds of sculpture would do well there or perhaps a long-overdue retrospective of my brother Ted’s stained glass. But paintings, fabric art, anything on paper . . . forget it. Some will construe this as a backing off from any art gallery’s raison d’être but as just about every exhibition I saw down there felt like it was being shortchanged by its environment, I can’t say that I lament the overhaul.
We dropped by the Museum last week for the opening of what’s being called the Centre at the Forks, and hearing that Matt Brown was about to christen the space with one of his magically soporific mayoral addresses, we bolted upstairs to the considerably less-populated second floor galleries and wandered into one of the most engaging confluence of shows we’ve ever seen there. As my more regular readers will know, I’m a pretty traditional chap. If an artist happens to be an accomplished draughtsman, I see that as a real point in their favour. And even more scandalously, I don’t dock points if they should employ their talents in an illustrative way in the service of a story. So this series of shows was right up my alley.
The northwest corner of the floor was given over to a charming in-house exhibition, Jacket Required: Book Covers from the Collection. Drawing from the Museum’s own ‘material culture collection’, there are framed cover panels and dust jackets from children’s storybooks, Bible story collections, cook books, school textbooks and local histories dating from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
Continuing in a clockwise trajectory, you next come to a dazzling celebration of the comic book in all its convention-busting styles and forms. Words and Pictures: Cartoonists of Southwestern Ontario gathers together finished pages, printer’s proofs, thumbnails, and three dimensional cardboard assemblages by Marc Bell, Scott Chantler, David Collier, Michael Cho, Willow Dawson, Jesse Jacobs, Mark Laliberte, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Jeff Lemire, Joe Ollmann, Seth, and Jay Stephens.
We then moved on to Bev Pike: Grottesque in the Ivey Gallery South, which seems to have taken on a comic book feel from the context of the other displays. The Winnipeg-based artist has created a series of immersive, 18 foot long gouache murals depicting cave interiors that are simultaneously menacing and lush. They feel as if New Yorker cartoonist Chas Addams discovered a dark palette of colour and was commissioned to design Mad Ludwig of Bavaria’s basement grottoes at Neuschwanstein.
And for me, the pulsing heart of all of these shows was to be found in the appropriately named Interior Gallery which is given over to Ting: The Life and Work of Merle Tingley. When he died last year at the age of 95, the easy-going resident cartoonist at The London Free Press from 1947 to 1986, had weathered a couple decades of neglect and been taken up anew by a rising generation of cartoonists who pay their homage to him in the Ting Comic & Graphic Arts Festival which showcases the work of rising graphic artists and has been held for the last five years at the Arts Project.
Ting is the perfect namesake for such a festival because (as I discovered when writing extensive biographical sketches of the 18 visual artists involved in 2007’s The River Project) this most unassuming of men inspired two or three generations of London artists who pored over his cartoons in the daily paper when they were kids. Whether they aspired to be cartoonists, painters or sculptors scarcely mattered. Here was this very public example of a crackerjack draughtsman with a unique way of looking at things coming up with some sort of pictorial commentary on their world nearly every day of the week.
That he ever turned up in London at all was a bit of a fluke as I discovered when interviewing him for Ontario Living magazine in 1988. An out of work veteran who had spent most of the Second World War drawing cartoons for various army publications, Ting drove his motorbike from his hometown of Montreal out to Victoria and most of the way back in his search for a Canadian newspaper in need of a cartoonist. A couple of years ago his son Cam told me that, “One night out on the prairies he asked a farmer if he could sleep in his barn and the farmer agreed. So my dad wheeled his motorcycle into the barn and fell asleep on some hay bales, and when he woke up in the morning the cow had completely eaten his handle grips.”
In the fall of 1947 Ting pulled into London to try his luck at the Free Press. By then he was so discouraged and broke that he was considering taking on a job selling men’s clothing. “They’d never had a cartoonist of their own,” Ting told me. “They weren’t quite sure what cartoonists did or how they could use one.” He was put to work touching up photographs in a corner of the basement of the old Free Press building on Richmond Street. He accepted the post as his foot in the door but barely a month after his arrival they ran his first cartoon on the front page – a coronation picture of George VIII. The George depicted in this instance was the ever-feisty George Wenige, just elected to his eighth term as Mayor of London.
Ting had wormed his way into the job he wanted and was soon cranking out six editorial cartoons a week. “That’s a lot of cartoons over 40 years,” he said, looking slightly incredulous as I performed some elementary mathematics and deduced that he’d produced a minimum of 12,480 panels. “Sometimes I look at old cartoons and I can’t even remember drawing them,” he said. “Or even worse, I’m not quite sure I understand them. They must refer to something that was going on at the time. I can’t think I just made that stuff up off the top of my head.”
Ting’s trademark, Luke Worm, was a nameless little squib in a top hat until a Free Press contest in 1951 to name the worm elicited more than 7,000 entries from their readership. The worm itself was born in the late 1930s when Ting, fresh out of high school, landed a job with a Montreal drafting office. “It was an incredibly hot day and I was working away on this cross section of a building and I was just bored silly – all those straight lines and all that precision. Then I got to work on the ground line and that was such a relief because it wasn’t straight. I got a little carried away and drew this worm poking up out of the ground. I got called away on some errand before I had time to erase it. The drawing got blueprinted, worm and all, and I got sacked. My first job and I was out the door but I wasn’t sorry. From that day I’ve put a worm in every drawing.”
Ting’s gawky little worm, hidden somewhere in the lines of every picture (decades before Where’s Waldo?), throwing off its symmetry and sabotaging the seriousness of public affairs, was emblematic of Ting himself. “I knew I didn’t belong anyplace that couldn’t make room for that worm.”
Other than decades’ worth of cartooning, one of Ting’s more enduring gifts to London was the charitable work he performed for Storybook Gardens which first opened its drawbridge in 1958. Ting offered them his services and ended up designing nearly 50 booths, exhibits and displays – all of it for free. “I haven’t taken a penny for any of the design work. I even handed over the rights to the Storybook colouring book. That’s been my community service.”
In the home stretch of our talk, I asked him to reflect on the art of cartooning. He told me that the cartoons that took the most work were almost invariably the weakest; that his best work just happened. One of his most popular was a panel he worked up upon learning that Lester Pearson – the Prime Minister who had overseen the creation of the red and white national flag – had died. “I didn’t even know what I was trying to do,” he recalled. “I drew the peace tower with a flag at half mast, a solid red bar to either side. And right there where the maple leaf ought to go . . . put a bow tie instead. That one just fell into my lap.
“There are so many artists I admire, who can draw circles around me, but they can’t do what I do. I’ve held down this job for 40 years and I’ve always been afraid that someone better is going to come along and I’ll be buried in the art department doing lingerie ads or something. What really distinguishes a cartoonist isn’t his skill as an artist – it’s his ideas, an inventive twist, the ability to see things in an arresting way. And that’s not a skill; that’s a gift.”
MUSEUM LONDON EXHIBITIONS:
TING: THE LIFE AND WORK OF MERLE TINGLEY / Curator: Amber Lloydlangston / Sept 22 to Jan 27, 2019
WORDS & PICTURES: CARTOONISTS OF SOUTHWESTERN ONTARIO / Guest Curator: Diana Tamblyn / Sept 15 to Jan 13, 2019
BEV PIKE: GROTTESQUE / Guest Curator: Blair Fornwald / Sept 15 to Dec 9, 2018
JACKET REQUIRED: BOOK COVERS FROM THE COLLECTION / To Nov 11, 2018
PHOTO: Kirtley Jarvis
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