On View: New Brunswick's grandfather of abstract art

Published Feb 14 2017

On view will be a regular series of our blog that takes a closer look at what is installed in the gallery. Currently showing is an abstract exhibition featuring Romeo Savoie, known as the grandfather of abstract art in New Brunswick. Many of Savoie’s larger paintings on view have been seen before, but not all at the same time. They come from a number of different series, and all have their own stories. Here are a few.

Savoie’s artistic heroes include American Robert Rauschenburg (1925 – 2008); Catalan Spanish Antoni Tapies (1923 – 2012); and Dutch Karel Apel (1921-2006). These are Savoie’s contemporaries; however, because Savoie started working as an artist full-time only at age 42, he was taking inspiration from their paths.

From Karel Apel, Savoie drew his personality as an “action painter”, referring to the mid-20th century artists who painted spontaneously – dribbling, splashing or smearing paint onto the canvas. Their resulting work often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its artist.  In this exhibition, “Eglantier” (54 x 66.5 inches) is an example of this type of work. Paint and sand are liberally hurled upon the surface.

From Antoni Tapies, comes Savoie’s interest in the use of symbol, calligraphy and graffiti, in recognition of the power of language. The frequent mark of a large “X” indicates the presence of the artist. Savoie and Tapies also have in common collage and the integration of poor materials considered to be non-aesthetic (straw, earth, wood). In the current exhibition, Savoie’s “Kouchibougac”(60 x 54  inches)includes wood and candles; “A” (diptych 24 x 48 inches) features matches and screws. A more geometric and formal version of abstraction appears in “8 Squares” (48 x 68 inches) in which coloured wooden rectangles are lined up symmetrically and marked off with measured lines.

Savoie’s totemic “Kouchibouguac” (1991) is a central piece in this exhibition. Forty years ago, the lands that are now Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick were home to more than 260 families, who inhabited seven communities. The removal of this resident population was the single largest case of forced removal in the history of the Canadian national park system. Even more significantly, this case stands apart from all others because of the intense resistance from the residents, most of whom were Acadians. Some of them viewed the Kouchibouguac expropriations as “une deuxième deportation,” in reference to the 18th century Acadian expulsion. Savoie also references the latter event, immortalized by Longfellow in his poem “Evangeline”, in his work, two examples of which are in this exhibition.

“Kouchibouguac” includes a piece of wood, sliced by a saw blade, and bundles of candles. Why the wood? Savoie tells us that it is because to cut wood with a saw you must act with determination, and such was the behavior of government in the removal of the communities from Kouchibouguac.

In the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition at the Galerie’d’art Lousie-et-Reuben-Cohen de l’Universite de Moncton (2006), Marie-Noelle Ryan states, speaking of “Kouchibouguac” and another work:

“These specific subjects unfailingly extend to a universal dimension because of the evocative richness of their texture and movement, further sustained by the insertion in the pieces of objects that affirm their immediate and concrete presence before us (bunched candles and votive lights placed on a steel shelf reminiscent of an altar, in Kouchibouguac….), but which are enfolded by the pictorial matter and gestre, coalescing into a complex object-image that resists a purely visual or conceptual reading.”

Romeo Savoie’s exhibition is at Studio 21 until March 1. Other artists have been added to the exhibition to investigate the idea of abstraction. We hope to see you soon!

Studio 21