- Reviewed by
Artist Richard Tetrault has been a visible, even unavoidable presence in Vancouver since the late 1970s. His work is in a genre known as community murals. This is basically a political movement that emerged in the 1960s, grew rapidly during the 1970s, and continues to this day all over North America. It could be characterized as a political rather than an art movement because it sees art as rightly having a place within political struggles. Of course the murals movement has an aesthetic, but it is one that downplays the autonomy of art in favour of political engagement. The sources for community murals lie in the classic modern muralism of Mexico, and many practitioners, including Tetrault, have studied there.
Tetrault's art is nothing if not engaged, and the book under review gives ample evidence of that. Like any artist who wants to make large public projects, Tetrault finds that kind of work scarce, and so he also makes stand-alone, autonomous paintings and prints for sale. Plenty of these are also documented in this book. Many of them resemble the social realism of the 1930s; woodcuts of dockside cranes, working-class diners, and downtown streets, in a manner reminiscent of Sybil Andrews, to mention one local British Columbia precedent. His paintings often have a fragmented structure that suggests early modernism, but they almost always include an integrated, anatomically correct human figure, anguished and bent, expressing social suffering through a noble humanism. These modes are familiar from socialist realism, the painting of Soviet Russia and Maoist China. Where Tetrault's works differ from this tradition of course is in their negativity, and this is something that they have probably inherited from the Mexicans.
I've known Tetrault for many years, at least since the mid-1980s – not well, but as a colleague. He has followed a difficult path in his life and his art, yet he has survived and, if this book is any evidence, latterly managed to thrive. His work can only be described as popular, but it is not the kind of people's art that attracts interest from the major institutions. I can't imagine his paintings in the Vancouver Art Gallery, for example, although [End Page 645] I don't see why they shouldn't be there. Tetrault would benefit from a more sophisticated historical perspective in the province. His uniqueness as well as his particular place within the culture of British Columbia might then be better appreciated.
Though his approach may be popular, or populist, it is nevertheless rare. He is like Dudley Carter, the lumberjack sculptor, who embodied a whole culture of amateur chainsaw artists, but who rose above that milieu through his international connections and his dialogue with Mexico. Tetrault stands above all the other earnest souls who want to give voice to the disenfranchised because he is a real artist. However, there was one other important muralist in Vancouver, Arnold Belkin. His trajectory moved in the opposite direction; he didn't bring the traditions of Mexico to Vancouver, but moved there and became a major muralist, perhaps the most important later exponent of the movement. An early piece, painted before he went to Mexico, is a scene in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, and it is on display at the Jewish Community Centre in Vancouver. Belkin and Tetrault bracket the recent history of socially engaged realist painting in Vancouver, and the fact that one of them never lived here is actually very appropriate to the fate of that kind of practice in Vancouver. Belkin's absence makes Tetrault a true original, a lone exponent of one of the central traditions of modern art in a town that has little or no space for it.
The essays in the book are written by his fans, local people who belong to the support network he has built up over the years of lonely struggle. He is a kind of hero in his own scene. Pamela Fairfield's piece is a very interesting history of the downtown east...