Harold Town: The Muscle Show at Cutts Gallery

Harold Town, Musclemen, 1984, oil and lucite on canvas, 55.5 x 68.5 inches

Town: The Muscle Show at Christopher Cutts Gallery is a display of Harold Town flexing his own creative muscle in the closing decade of his life. I admit that I couldn’t suppress a smile at his nerve at tackling full throttle a subject that was not “in” or popular in any refined, cultural sense. His building up to this painterly leap is revealed in a statement that he made in the late ‘70s, “It’s time for me to become unpopular again.” Predictably, the works were disparaged as trivial by the art establishment.

Harold Town, Muscle Men #3, 1981, oil and lucite on canvas, 60 x 120 inches

Town stuck to his guns, insisting they should be included in his 1986 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As painting subject, his musclemen paintings here have proven resilient, being also prescient. Bodybuilding itself at that time underwent a rehabilitation from the freakish to a somewhat respectable arm of the physical fitness movement that took off in the 1980s. The acknowledged catalyst seems to have been the 1977 bodybuilding documentary, Pumping Iron, that introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to popular culture. Shelley Town cites Pumping Iron as an inspiration of her father for the Muscle paintings. The artist would subsequently go on to collect 1970s muscle magazines.

Harold Town, Muscle Man #1, 1981, oil on linen canvas, 90 x 60 inches

A liberation from the constraint of “taste” fueled a sense of the heroic in Town’s Muscle Man series of paintings, that included an occasional “Muscle Woman.” The artist’s Muscle Man #1 stands out as a gesture of defiance, featuring a subject with flexed bicep and clenched fist raised high. Town dated the work April 1, 1981 as perhaps a sucker punch to his critics, as if to say, “Plenty of time for history to sort out where the joke lands.”

Harold Town, The Muscle Show exhibition view

Apart from the anomaly of bodybuilders as subject, Town’s Muscle Men paintings possess an exuberance independent of their images. Their allusion to the landscape is clear in their unshackled freedom with brush, colour and form. Similarly, to the artist’s 1970s Snap series of paintings, The Muscle Show is a prime example of a Harold Town career shift on steroids, energized here by a supporting tactic, “pumping irony.”

Steve Rockwell

Images are courtesy of Christopher Cutts Gallery

*Exhibition information: Harold Town, The Muscle Show, October 15 – November 19, 2022, Christopher Cutts Gallery, 21 Morrow Ave, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat, 10am – 6pm.

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