Artist’s work arcs from grotesquerie to grace

Maurice Spira

If you want to view contemporary paintings that are challenging, provocative and not for the faint of heart, go to the Doris Crowston Gallery at Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt for the solo show, M. Spira 2020. You also might be pleasantly surprised by much of what else the unabashed artist has on display at this exhibit, but more on that in a moment. 

Roberts Creek artist Maurice Spira, English-born and now in his mid-70s, has lived and created on the Sunshine Coast for nearly 40 years, some of them spent in controversy. A painting of his displayed in Gibsons in the mid-1990s depicted a young girl on Santa’s lap doing unspeakable things. The painting was a protest against many of Spira’s frequent targets, like the devastating effects of exploitation and authoritarianism. The work – not on view here – drew death threats, but Spira has continued with his often grotesque social criticism, undaunted. 

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“I’m alive in the contemporary world and I condemn many, many aspects of it. I don’t like what’s going on,” Spira said in an interview at the show’s Feb. 9 opening reception. “Mind you, I don’t like what went on through most of human history, either. Authoritarian, hierarchical societies based on domination and control, through religious systems, state-administered systems, they’re everywhere today and they were everywhere in antiquity.” 

Many of the larger works in the exhibit have been created in the past 20 years, and reflect Spira’s castigating views, with titles like Obedience of the Corpses, and Twilight of the Aristocrats. One painting, All Options Remain on the Table, shows two seated generals negotiating while on the table between them are the mangled human body parts they’re bickering over. Another, Horror Vacui, is typical of many of Spira’s paintings here. It contains dozens of mysterious elements in a dynamic narrative you have to pore over to try to grasp. Typically, while the work starkly lays out the nightmarish absurdity of human cruelty, his artistic skills make the monstrous depictions, if not palatable, hard not to be drawn into. 

“The [human] figure is still fundamental even in my imaginative work, which has psycho-sexual or political or historical associations,” Spira said. “My ability to work with the figure, even in a greatly enhanced and transformed way, is paramount.” 

Which brings us to the many pleasant surprises of this exhibition. Spira is known for the outrageous, but also for the dozens of other affecting works on display, including still life, landscapes uniquely featuring construction and industry, and more than a dozen human portraits in various media. His range of subjects speaks to his more than 60 years of serious study. One sketchbook piece features a set of sensually detailed drawings of the apparatuses that couple train cars, reminiscent, if you will, of Da Vinci’s studies of human bone and musculature. 

M. Spira 2020 is on at the gallery until March 8. There’s a meet-the-artist opportunity on Sunday, Feb. 16 from 2 to 4 p.m. Ask Spira anything you want about his work – rest assured he’ll tell you.

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