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Blazing Figures: A Life of Robert Markle

by J.A. Wainwright

The visual artist Robert Markle (1936–90) was a Mohawk from southern Ontario who believed “people should be aware [that] you can be a Native Canadian and still understand [that] Christopher Wren is wonderful and Rembrandt is wonderful and Western art is wonderful.” In time, he did finally permit his racial and cultural heritage to surface in his art in ways that non-natives could recognize, though his renown would always rest on much different aspects of his work and persona.

J.A. Wainwright, the poet and novelist, has written a book that mediates between biography and sophisticated art criticism. For many readers, however, its appeal will be in what it tells us about Canadian art in a specific time and place.

Markle was a rebel with, in Wainwright’s words, a “cynical awareness of how his reputation as an artist and teacher connects to what he can do and get away with.” One can read much into the fact that he was expelled from the Ontario College of Art for throwing acid in the general direction of a fellow student who later became his wife and lifelong muse. He will forever be best known for the controversy surrounding his participation in a group show called Eros ’65 at the Dorothy Cameron Gallery in Toronto. A police raid led to an obscenity trial that Robert Fulford called “a comedy of mutual incomprehension.” The fiasco caused the gallery to close and made Markle famous.

Like his friends Gordon Rayner, Dennis Burton, Harold Town, and Graham Coughtry, Markle was the very embodiment of what big-time male artists in Toronto and elsewhere thought they were supposed to be – macho (to an extent), daring, connected to alternative teaching and exhibition spaces, consumed with jazz and communal boozing, and closely tied to the raffish edges of journalism and the media.

Blazing Figures is a lavishly produced book that perceptively shows the Toronto art world of the 1950s and ’60s.