The Penticton Art Gallery is very pleased to present the largest exhibition to-date of the Vancouver based artist Les McKinnon whose dedication and commitment not only to his craft but also as an educator can only be described as exemplary. Over the past 40 years Les has created an overwhelming body of work exploring a wide range of subjects, media and themes and while his work has been included in a number of exhibitions, few know of his work and his legacy beyond that as an educator having taught in the public school system for the majority of his working life. Though it all he has remained true to his vision and while he can count some of Vancouver best known painters, printmakers and photographers amongst his closest friends, his work remains unknown outside of his immediate circle.
Sadly, in a world increasingly being driven by the art market and art stars, artists like Les McKinnon are often swept to the side and their contributions to the development of our art history are either minimized or overlooked entirely. As an educator Les has won national recognition and has inspired and influenced generations of students some of which may have important careers in the visual arts while others are richer for having Les grant them the freedom to explore their creativity.
This exhibition is aptly titled as it traces a lifetime’s exploration and fascination with hard edge and op art of the late 60s and early 70s. The influence of his mentors, teachers and friends is evident in Les McKinnon’s work yet every piece remains uniquely his own. In coming up with a focus for the show Les rediscovered a number of prints he made in the 1970s and looking at them again with fresh eyes, he saw how these works could be expanded from the optical illusion of the dimensions to actual three dimensional sculptures. It’s now been over two years since started and in spite of a range of setbacks the show has come together and it’s been exciting to see Les not only revisit earlier works but fully realize the potential they have held secret for the past 40 years.
Beginning in the 1970s, Les’ art can be characterized as predominantly hard-edge silkscreen printmaking. To a lesser degree, he also explored painting using his prints as inspiration. The dominant style of his early work consists of areas of flat colour, always emphasizing a combination of both colour and form. With time, his composition evolved to include elements of architecture and landscape. Les uses satire and humour to advance provocative questions relating to contemporary issues. His ¨Oh, Canada¨ show at Regent College (UBC) took place at the time of the Quebec Referendum in 1992. Les used the show´s collection of prints and paintings as a framework for a thought-provoking examination of Canada´s future and culture. Recently, Les has focused more of his energy on painting than printmaking. His current stylistic emphasis centers on exploring looser, more fluid brushwork. His inspiration is derived from the surrounding environment including urban and rural settings, both at home and abroad.
Les McKinnon Artist Statement
I completed my degree in Education at the University of British Columbia in 1967. There I majored in Fine Arts with printmaking under Bob Steele. I then began my career as an art teacher with the Vancouver School Board that spanned the next 32 years. In 1992, while teaching at Lord Strathcona School, I had the honour of being selected as the ‘BC Art Teacher of the Year’. I retired from teaching in 1999 in order to devote more time to creating art, as well as traveling as a source of inspiration.
I have always work in series and this exhibition traces one of the threads for over forty years. In 1973 I started a series of hard edge prints in my home studio. After doing eight prints, Gordon Smith suggested that I come to his studio and run a print with him using a simpler paper stencil method, which I then used for many years. These early prints, and later paintings were hard edge geometric abstractions, often incorporating optical illusions. In the late 1970s they became more architectural, usually with a landscape reference. For a time in the 1990s, my prints explored Deconstuctionist Architecture and the theories of the American architect Phillip Johnson.
The toxic nature of traditional silkscreen inks and finding the new water based inks less than satisfactory, caused me to exploreacrylic paint and collage as avenues of expression. After doing a number of series on Canadian identity, travel and religious symbolism, I have once again returned for inspiration to my images from the 1970s.
After seeing a photograph in an exhibit in Scotland, wrapped around a cylinder I wondered how that idea could be adapted to my work. After doing several small maquettes, it occurred to me that the sonatube used to make concrete pillars could be the base for large sculpture. That in turn led to the plywood sculpture and plank painting. The see-through sculptures were inspired by my grandchildren’s delight in peeking through tubes. Although many of the later works are rooted in the 70s prints, I have attempted to give the work a monumental, lively or playful quality. I hope you enjoy them.
I would like to thank all my family for their love and support, and in particular my wife Sandy, for being my studio assistant. I would also like to thank my brother Don for his help making all things wooden, and Duane Hatch for securing sonatubes and helping me cut them, and to Mariusz Stepienfor computer support. Thanks also to Bob Steele and Gordon Smith for their encouragement over the years, and to Paul Crawford and Glenn Clark for arranging this show and their practical assistance.
Les McKinnon, Vancouver, BC, May 2013