Friday 20 August 2010

At the Nexus Art Gallery (1981) Norval Morrisseau

Norval Morrisseau
At the Nexus Art Gallery in 1981

I remember Norval asking me, "what do you want me to write?". I said, "I don't know, whatever you want to...". So he laughed and wrote, "To a great pal" and then signed it with flair.

Norval Morrisseau in his Studio in Toronto - 1979

The Nexus gallery was located on the East side of Church Street, near Queen St. in Toronto. This picture shows Norval at work in the basement at the "Nexus Studio" in 1979. The Nexus Gallery was upstairs, with a "production room" in the back, and further still, a table and office of sorts where the Volpe brothers would gather to sip coffee and talk real estate ("or so they told me"). Albert Volpe and his wife, Violette, were kind, soft-spoken people. Norval respected Albert and Violette immensely.

The Volpe period of Morrisseau art representation through Nexus Art was, in my opinion, a high point in Morrisseau's career. Jack Pollack longed for Norval to produce more traditional, subdued art to accommodate Jack's existing clients who were quite attached to Morrisseau's early era work. Jack wanted smaller, simpler pieces... and only originals. Norval wanted to explore and expand.

With Albert Volpe's business acumen (i.e. connections) and gentle manner, new doors of opportunity opened for Norval. His original paintings from this period are powerful, electrically charged pieces, often with profound subject matter. The mural, "A Separate Reality", found at Ottawa's Museum of Civilization is a prime example. Nexus Art also assisted in producing the Morrisseau "Four Seasons" limited edition plates and multiple handmade rag paper "limited edition" prints that are the absolute best in terms of quality.

Under the name, ALVO Indian Art (ALVO is an acronym for Albert Volpe) a well oiled and organized print production operation went into full swing. Most of the prints produced went to Europe however, along with a number of paintings on paper similar to the one pictured in this 1981 poster.

A "Nexus" is a place where it all comes together. A time when everything connects. Little did I know that I was witnessing a unique Nexus in art history. Underpinning the climax of the Pollock era and the emerging Volpe era was the founding of Norval's "Thunderbird School of Shamanistic Art", that I have been privileged and blessed to be a part of.

Film and articles portray Norval Morrisseau's "nebulous" 1980s as something of a disaster. Nine years without a solo show, trapped by mobster, Albert Volpe, living anywhere and everywhere on the streets, dusted in cocaine, desparately poor and lost to alcoholism. Are these stories true?

What a bizarre web we weave when our sordid fantasies of Morrisseau's woe in the gutters of life become "his stories"(history). Norval's 1980's history has been told by people that don't have a clue. His 1980s history is rife with embellishments and simplistic assumptions.

Morrisseau was his own man in the 1980s. He ran his show. Not Volpe, Pollock or anyone else. He stopped or started drinking at will. No institution came to his aid. His mission was as experiential as it was spiritual - and he knew it. To know Norval you had to know that he was on a mission for God. He believed it and he lived it. He was profoundly moral, though few may agree with me. He advocated against cocaine or any medically produced drug. In fact, he was an alternative health advocate well before it was fashionable.

Much of Morrisseau's history has been coloured by the story tellers themselves. I hear Pollock's, Helmy's, Lavack's, Nagy's and Volpe's history portrayed as if it were Norval's history. I see the myth of the powerless "Indian" played out as if it were Norval's personal story. He let them do it. What did he care? It was all just an illusion.

Yes, the 1980s is a nomadic period that has been difficult for the artworld to understand. Norval was a maestro of both his art and his life in the 1980s. The authentic story is far more interesting than the one they've been handing you. Morrisseau had a 1980's history. He just wasn't sharing it with a "dealer".

If anything I would call the 1980s "The Morrisseau Years". He owned them. Morrisseau's many masterpieces produced in the 1980s are an undeniable record attesting to it.

Adapted from a 2009 article from

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