But an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is aiming to break Hurtubise out of that historical bracket. It features 60 paintings and prints from his ongoing, five-decade-long career—which, for the past three decades, has been situated far from “the Main” in the Margaree region of Cape Breton.
“He’d always been in the back of my mind as one of those greats on the baseline of abstract art,” says AGNS curator Sarah Fillmore. But until Fillmore inherited the Hurtubise project from past curator (now AGNS director) Ray Cronin, she admits she “had no idea that he was living in Nova Scotia.”
The inclusion of Hurtubise’s prints in the show is key, as printmaking has had a huge influence on his paintings. “For one series in the 1980s,” says Fillmore, “he was quite literally printing one side of the canvas onto the other to create a symmetrical composition.” As well, stencilling and masking continue to be primary techniques for the artist on canvas.
Another key element that comes across in the show the “bigness” of Hurtubise’s work, both physically (one work is six metres long) and visually (Hurtubise’s colour combinations are intense—some might even say garish).
“To be honest, there was moment when I thought, How is this all going to fit together?” says Fillmore. “But that’s why the work is so powerful. It’s definitely not a quiet aesthetic! Sometimes it’s even overpowering. But it’s exciting to have a painting move you in a way that is visceral—that makes your eyes buzz and your heart beat faster.”
So even though Hurtubise is associated with the 1960s, 2011 just might be his moment. Earlier this year saw a survey of his prints at the Maison de la culture Frontenac in Montreal. The AGNS says its exhibition is set to tour after it closes in Halifax in September. Finally, the Musée régional de Rimouski is also planning to open its own Hurtubise show this fall.
What is the artist going to do to celebrate? Likely take, as he has for the many years, to the road a summer-long RV trip with his wife. RV-ing might be old-fashioned, but it’s inspired some of Hurtubise’s most lively new works—pieces that Fillmore says speak to visiting artists in their 50s, 40s, 30s and even 20s.
“There are painters content in working in a certain style for a long period of time and Hurtubise has never been happy sticking with what is popular or what is selling well,” concludes Fillmore. “He’s a painter who paints for himself.”