Don Proch: Masking and Mapping

This is a positivist art history and an important book—one neatly put together by Pat Bovey and the willing artist Don Proch, who collaborated on the interviews, reflected retrospectively on the past and opened his sketchbooks. Book designer Frank Reimer took up Bovey’s paradigm of visionary artist, prairie causation and artist rebel. With precision and clarity in the layout and a balance of image and text, Don Proch: Masking and Mapping, published by the University of Manitoba Press in collaboration with St. John’s College Press, privileges the visual, with full-page bleeds, details and terrific photos by Ernest Mayer, and illustrated with over 56 years of Proch’s work. There is humour in the design; the frontispiece is an isolated, free-floating photo of Don Proch’s head (born 1942), the glasses, moustache and backlit hair signifying pop, cerebreality and male centricity, prefiguring his emphasis on the masks later in his work. The primacy of the pictures are worthy of the coffee table, but this book also suits the researcher with its excellent bibliography, chronology, footnotes, list of illustrations and new visual material and social context.

Why has prairie art been written out of so many Canadian art anthologies? This is not Bovey’s question; she is, after all, tactful and diplomatic. But it is part of her purpose to establish the singular histories of individual artists in this region. Bovey traces Proch’s development as an artist, his major exhibitions and involvement in social networks, drawing significantly on the art criticism of the time for interpretative commentary. The chapters are neat and driven by chronology. Bovey’s interviews and inclusion of material on the artist’s productions of the Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop and the Ophthalmia Company are central in conveying the social environment around Proch’s artmaking, providing a sense of the ethos of the mid-1960s and 1970s.

This is the prairie epicentre. I feel implicated, and I am in many ways. I remember seeing Proch’s sculpture at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as a teenager and feeling inspired. It stood as overt myth making and a sense that the prairies had been eviscerated and geologically mined. I may have been on drugs, or not, and unaware, perhaps, that male privilege would define some of the struggles of the decade. But Proch cracked open prairie iconography, creating personas, mixing genres, deftly weaving high and low, urban and rural, sky and ground, isolation and camaraderie.

Don Proch: Masking and Mapping, by Patricia Bovey, University of Manitoba Press, 2019.

Flip through the pages of the text. Fantastic masks, elemental installations, homages to influences and influencers. Is that Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field? Is that a logo from a Monty Python collage? More predominant is the innate and ready engulfment by the land as subject. It’s all here: the geologic layers in the drawing and silverpoint, the careful rendering of furrow and cloud. No surprise that, in the first bit of text, the artist’s preface, Proch acknowledges Ivan Eyre’s basic drawing class. Eyre’s source material of German expressionism and surrealism provided a means for Proch’s extraordinary sense of place-making with his Velocipedes, Asessippi landscapes and moto riders. In the early chapter, Bovey elaborates upon Proch’s farming background, where utility and engineering, tooling and machinery gave this artist entry skills. She focuses on the move from farm to city and early school days, with later chapters on masks, sources and technical processes. Proch made some of the most ambitious sculpture and installation of his time: where the land imprints itself on the body; where farm machinery, Indigenous knowledge and “real women” are transmuted into myth; and where the intractable harshness of the land is syncopated by rainbow hallucinogenic effects. She quotes extensively and usefully from the art critical record. The art criticism of the time provides a sense of critical reception and popular understanding, and a deft way, perhaps, to avoid difficult imagery in the iconography from the present vantage, particularly Motria’s Hair or the unrealized Incline. In a later chapter, Bovey enumerates the masks and headdresses—the later and more self-conscious art homages to people, events and places: the Red River Flood, and artists Jackson Beardy, Vic Cicansky, Joe Fafard, Alex Colville and Gord Downie.

It is extraordinary, and tempting, to devise a new metaphor about a weird new prairie species. But it’s not all environmental determinism and geologic strata. As Bovey shows, the social production of art has an extrinsic influence. The printmakers had something to do with this. Indeed, blame the poet’s construction of place through the vernacular—Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley, the Regina Five, California funk, pop, the Canada Council, Manitoba Arts Council, St. John’s, Professor Ken Hughes, the Tragically Hip … but I digress.

Proch’s iconography of the prairies, pop sensibility and penchant for collaboration with Bovey’s insistence on the local—\ the Winnipeg shows, CARFAC, the University of Manitoba’s School of Art, and the English Department at St. John’s College—make causality and imagery both fecund and overdetermined. As for the sex, drugs, rock and roll and the role of women … that’s the next chapter. ❚

Don Proch: Masking and Mapping by Patricia Bovey, University of Manitoba Press, 2019, 152 pages, hardcover, $22.00.

Amy Karlinsky curated 50-year exhibition retrospectives of Ivan Eyre and Bruce Head for the Winnipeg Art Gallery.