Festival is part of a series of Optical or Op art paintings by Canadian artist Harold Town (1924–1990). Characteristically, he steals features from a current style and twists them for a new purpose—here he takes the repeated discs and lines that appeared around 1960 in the works of Paris-based painters Victor Vasarely (1906–1997) and Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005). He mixes these Op art elements into a rich and dramatic fabric. The theme of the festival was one he had treated in earlier paintings. Behind a foreground layer of frantic activity that evokes jugglers, strings of lights, ticker tape, and confetti, we glimpse an intergalactic darkness in which writhe twisting, faintly painted nebulae made up of dashes, waves, and what Town jokingly called “doughnuts.”


Harold Town, Festival, 1965
Harold Town, Festival, 1965

Oil and Lucite on canvas, 160 x 160 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Ted Fraser, curator of Town’s 1975 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Windsor, points out the work’s lurking connotations: “The mixing of comedy and tragedy . . . is very clearly defined in Festival. The lush surface of the painting with its carnival rhythms and Mardi Gras excitement belie a distant ominous space rotating upwards towards the flat surface. Here is a dark, cellular and psychological interior, a psychic storm in full force . . . Town had plainly turned the tables on the decorative art of the mid-1960s and created works highly personal, extremely memorable and amazingly descriptive of perceptual and physical space.”


This Spotlight is excerpted from Harold Town: Life & Work by Gerta Moray.

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