Blaze of Glory

Reviewed by Tanis MacDonald

The title of J.A. Wainwright’s Blazing Figures is an allusion to an article written by the biographical subject, painter Robert Markle, as well as a reference to Markle’s arresting depictions of mostly-nude, mostly-female subjects that made his reputation in the Toronto art world for three decades until his accidental death at the age of 54 in 1990. But it is Markle himself who cuts the most incendiary figure in this book. Wainwright takes on the daunting task of translating to the page Markle’s bigger-than-life public persona and linking the brash, fierce, often rude and dedicatedly libidinous artist to the tough but sensitive art instructor, and finally to the private man. To do so, Wainwright necessarily tackles the swirl of gender and identity politics that surrounded Markle, for it would be impossible to discuss Markle’s erotic depictions of women without discussing art, sexism, censorship and the conservative social mores of Toronto in the 1960s. Equally impossible to ignore are Markle’s Mohawk heritage and his artistic response to his late-life rediscovery of it—like 1979’s “Indian Blood” and 1988’s neo-folk art “Creation Whirligig”—though it must be noted that Markle was wary of the restrictions of being regarded as an “Indian artist.”

The impulse to tell “a life” as a cohesive narrative is by definition a kind of folly, and so-called “great men” biographies have sounded strained since the 1980s. That said, such biographical folly is often necessary to risk the encounter with history as a story, and Robert Markle may indeed be a great man. Certainly the beautiful colour reproductions of his works that burst from the pages of Blazing Figures suggest a visionary spirit and a passion for understanding the strength and vulnerability of the human body, its intimacy and its fierceness, that make the 1965 pornography charges laid against gallery owner Dorothy Cameron for mounting a show with Markle’s work look like so much old-Ontario fogeyism. One of the missteps in this biography is Wainwright’s frequent insistence that feminists objected to Markle’s work when in fact Cameron supported his work and male government officials brought charges against her. A rhetorical weakness is Wainwright’s justification that Markle’s respect for women kept his work from being pornographic, which is unfortunately an argument used by pornographers from Larry Flynt forward, leaving Markle unintentionally—and unjustly—damned by a flawed defence.
Blazing Figures is most successful in discussion with Markle’s individual paintings, and the best of Wainwright’s writing offers attentive readings of the paintings as visual text. The book also notes the evolution of Markle’s technique and a compelling narrative of the burgeoning Toronto art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, complete with energies and antagonisms. The biography does err on the side of exhaustive worshipfulness. Chapters on Markle’s famous friends seem out of place; sections on Markle’s hockey and jazz pursuits are lightweight. Even the debate about the dividing line between pornography and erotica seems flattened out by the difficulty negotiating the temper of the times; at times, Wainwright recreates the misogyny of the times in the name of verisimilitude. Markle, it seems, can do no wrong, and a little of this kind of justification goes a long way. Artist Joyce Wieland is unjustly portrayed as the resident feminist harpy, and the biographer’s third-person appearances as “naïve young poet” Andy Wainwright, hovering on the edge of Markle’s charmed beery circle, are a bit too coy for a biography of this scope. Wainwright’s interviews with dozens of people who knew Markle balance this out; Markle’s legacy includes his instruction of a generation of visual artists who studied under him at both the Ontario College of Art and at the alternative Art’s Sake, and Wainwright wisely includes measured and thoughtful responses from many of Markle’s students. Also welcome are generous samplings from Markle’s published articles and private journals, enough to suggest that an anthology of Markle’s written work would be of interest.

In the end, the images have their say, and the muscular, brilliant toned or deeply charcoaled limbs and curves of the bodies on Markle’s canvases speak loud. The ecstatic attention paid to them by Markle’s eye and Wainwright’s prose overcomes all arguments about the biographical rhetoric in Blazing Figures. Robert Markle emerges as a figure who wrestles with the angel of art and is blessed through his willingness to risk damnation.

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