The magic of Duncan Regehr

By Christine Clark, July/August 2012

His questing intellect and impressive creative skills are on display in two shows this summer.

Many years ago, in the early ’90s when I first saw Duncan Regehr’s work (this was the Poetic Imagery Series at Winchester Gallery at their old location near the Oak Bay Junction), I was a very young painter and was completely enthralled by the seemingly impossible glow he achieved in his paintings. It seemed as though he had somehow installed a soft night light, or perhaps a star, beneath the skin of each jewel-like colour. Truly magical, the colours and the very texture of the work were so varied and rich, the stories told on each canvas were so spiritually and intellectually profound, that I had the impression, standing in the presence of his work, that he must be someone in possession of a great and mystical power.

In person, Regehr is surprisingly tall and thin, in fact, dangerously close to gaunt.  His hair moves in shattered auburn strands against his pale skin. Dressed simply in a black t-shirt and jeans, he appears, it seems out of nowhere, standing with a tentative air on the grass, waiting for me to climb out my car as I arrive for a visit at his Shawnigan Lake property. After a short walk to his enviably light-filled studio, we sit down across a small table from one another with our cups of milky tea.

I ask him if he is a magician. To which he replies, “No, but to a certain extent an artist is a magician.” An artist makes something out of nothing.

Regehr explored this theme in a catalogue interview with Nicholas Tuele, the guest curator of one of his two summer exhibits: “Art is the most powerful alchemy we know, the magic agent of transcendence that lifts consciousness into a more perfect state. When we lose ourselves in art, we become more real.”

From his CV, it’s easy to imagine Regehr is often lost in art. He has participated in either solo or group exhibitions, with very few gaps, every year since the mid-70s. He has also produced five books of drawings, paintings, poetry and musings. His paintings are in collections world-wide, from China to Scotland. He was admitted to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 2000, and in 2008 was presented with the honorary doctorate of Fine Arts by the University of Victoria.

And, of course, he’s had an impressive career on the stage and in film. Beginning locally at the age of 16, he performed with Victoria Fair, a theatre company operating out of UVic. After spending a decade in Toronto and surrounds playing in the Stratford Festival and working for the CBC, Regehr moved to Los Angeles in 1980. You might have seen him in one of several prominent productions—Zorro, for instance, or in The Monster Squad as Count Dracula, or in one of several episodes of Star Trek. About acting, Regehr says it’s an “interpretative art…There was a time it was OK to do it, [but] poetry, writing and painting is my life [now].”

As we sit and drink our tea I can see in his eyes that he is weary and it seems at times as though he might be content to sit silently for the rest of eternity. But he assures me he is on the cusp of “change—emerging from an old life into a new life,” one he is embracing with great joy.

And so it seems that his current exhibition at UVic’s freshly renovated Legacy Art Gallery is aptly titled “Transformation: A Retrospective.” This exhibit, on now, runs through to August 18. And, from July 7 to 28, Winchester Galleries in Oak Bay will present “Out of the Dragon’s Eye,” featuring works by Regehr spanning back 20 years, revealing the true breadth of his endeavours.

The Legacy show concentrates on works—paintings, sculpture and poetry—created over the past 12 years, including pieces from his latest group of paintings, the Omniscient Series. These seven large scale—most are 96 by 72 inches—highly textured paintings feature charged atmospheric images, like sunsets reflected in a wildly rippling body of water. Applied over a section of each of these canvasses is a rectangle of what Regehr calls linen (although it looks more like burlap) on which is painted an ethereal face. The eyes are extremely compelling. He refers to these beings as “a part of us that knows everything.” He says, “for me the Omniscience works are about awakening, transcendence, rebirth, all-knowingness. The impetus behind them was incredibly uplifting, and the process of creating them, was pure epiphany.”

Yet these paintings have about them a baleful quality that makes me, when I stand in front of them, feel very small and very flawed and very damned; not whole or wholly known. Of course, these are Regehr’s paintings, and, as he says, art is “an ongoing self-portrait—ever changing over the years, but it holds to the nature of the person and acts as a biography.” On one level these paintings seem personal, perhaps reflective of some difficult inner dialogue rather than merely a true representation of a universal, underlying communion with all-knowingness.

 

The Omniscience paintings, displayed on the walls of the inner gallery at the Legacy, make for a powerful experience, particularly while “playing” a series of Regehr’s bronze sculptures, the Helms, which sit on plinths installed in a semicircle in the midst of these remarkable paintings. Striking each bronze gently in turn results in a warbling resonance; the entire scene, of course, alludes to a spiritual experience, something Zen, something meditative.

In his philosophical approach to art and the human condition, Regehr draws on a broad range of sources: quantum mechanics, Eastern mysticism, and Jungian psychology to name but a few. About his Doppelganger Series, which are represented in both shows, Regehr states in the Legacy catalogue, “Dr Jung described ‘self’ as the centre and circumference of the total psyche, the conscious and unconscious personality of human beings. According to the great contemplative traditions, every person is at least two selves; the finite, temporal, egoic self-sense, and the infinite, transcendental self, or I AMness. The Doppelganger paintings offer subjects that relate to the ego-persona as alternate or ‘secret selves.’ A doppelganger is traditionally thought of as a perfect physical double of an individual, also described as a wraith or apparition of a living person…The Doppelganger works may allude to that concept, but I have tried to examine the secret self in a broader sense to explore my own dark ‘haunting.’”

When I studied these paintings in his studio, I found them quite painful, as the doubling (or the separating of the self from the self) seems also to speak to internal discord. But he told me, “Each of us has multiple personalities. The [Doppelganger] figures resemble rather than duplicate. [They reveal] aspects of manipulation, control, compassion—your conscience, your witness self, an imaginary childhood friend, that voice that speaks to you when you are doing something wrong, or that part of you that wants to take over.”  

About the Cypher Series (see cover), a collection of theatrical, surrealist figurative paintings, Regehr has written, “There is more to each being than our theories allow…more to mind, presence and essence than the brain can impart, or the senses perceive…more to each life than can be explained by the traditional categories of environment and genetics.” In the Legacy catalogue, he talks of Plato’s notion that “everything has a form from which it is derived” and admits to the challenge of conveying it in his images and to his sense that “if there is a design code that exists for each of us (one that exists beyond genes, atoms, environments, etc.) then it may well be ever-changing.”

It’s difficult to decipher these works, difficult to know Duncan Regehr in the few short hours I spent with him, or in those spent reading his articulate prose. And I’m not convinced an analytic twist of the mind is the key. To be with Regehr, to be in company with his paintings, is an emotional experience, and one that lingers. He may not be a magician, but he has power; a physical, charismatic power, an artistic power, one which reveals and elicits, and even demands, a response.

 

Transformation: A Retrospective runs to August 18 at Legacy Art Gallery, 630 Yates St (www.legacygallery.ca, 250-381-7654). Duncan Regehr will give a poetry reading on July 14 from 1:30 to 3:30. 

Out of the Dragon’s Eye is at Winchester Galleries, 2260 Oak Bay Ave, from July 7 to 28, with an opening reception with the artist on July 7, 1-5pm (www.winchestergalleriesltd.com, 250-595-2777). See also www.duncanregehr.com.

Christine Clark is a Victoria artist and writer.