Artists—at least fashionably contemporary ones—are not supposed to deal with the elemental and the cosmic. To confront the infinite and the sublime, to depict the great emptiness of the North and the even greater emptiness of the night sky is to court esthetic disaster on a grand scale. Those concerns, after all, belong more properly to the 19th century, when God was still in his heaven, and when man could still confront the transcendental with a sense of conviction. Now, anyone attempting to work within that Romantic tradition risks producing nothing more than galactic kitsch.
All of that makes the work of 62-year-old Canadian artist Paterson Ewen that much more extraordinary. Forty-one of his large paintings on plywood, the fruit of the past 16 years, are now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario under the apt title Phenomena. The show will remain at the gallery until April 3, moving later to London, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa and Calgary. Gouged and scored by routers and hand tools, dotted with pieces of tin, Ewen’s paintings are not so much landscapes as grapplings with various forces of nature. They show solar eruptions and the movement of comets, the waxing and waning of the moon and the effects of extreme forms of weather. Sumptuous in color but with scarred and pitted surfaces, they are works of immediate authority and stand together as one of the major achievements of Canadian art. Indeed, such is their luminous energy that they make even the beige, department-store spaces of the AGO’S Zacks galleries come alive.
Ewen’s plywood paintings have a hard-won beauty—they do not look as if their creation was ever easy. Just how hard-won becomes apparent from Paterson Ewen: The Montreal Years, a second exhibition organized by Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery and currently at the London Regional Art Gallery. In London until March 13, the exhibition will travel to Windsor, Montreal and Halifax. The show is a piece of careful archeology by curator Matthew Teitelbaum, who has reconstructed Ewen’s early career from his beginnings as an intense Sunday painter to
his development into an intelligent, if not earth-shattering, abstractionist.
Without knowledge of Ewen’s later achievement, a viewer might be forgiven for thinking that the artist was just another painter among the talented group that worked in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s. As the catalogue to The Montreal Years points out, the
young Ewen—the son of a Scottish-born fur-auction-house manager— yearned to escape the claustrophobia of his Montreal family home.
As with many of his generation, escape took the form of the Second World War, during which he served in Holland as a machine-gunner. The war provided him with a veteran’s allowance that permitted him to attend first McGill University, then the School of Art and
Design of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where he studied with Montreal painters Arthur Lismer and Goodridge Roberts.
The canvases from that period are a
study in influences. Seated Figure (1950) is both a portrait of Ewen’s then-pregnant wife, the dancer and choreographer Françoise Sullivan, and a sensitive homage to the much-underrated Roberts. Other more abstract influences abound. Ewen moved among, but was never wholly a part of, such important local groups as the Automatistes—champions of the power of the subconscious, led by the renowned Montreal painter Paul-Emile Borduas—and the more geometrically inclined Plasticiens, whose most vocal member is the internationally acclaimed painter Guido Molinari. Ewen experimented with a variety of approaches to abstract painting, but there remained in his work strong references to landscapes, as well as an occasional mystical intensity-evident in a series of small monochrome paintings painted after staring at the night sky.
If Ewen’s work of the 1950s and 1960s never quite resolved itself, it may have been because of the mundane fact that he was
in reality a part-time painter, supporting his wife and four children by day as personnel manager in a manufacturing plant. By 1966 his marriage had ended, and, racked by increasing self-doubt as an artist, Ewen was hospitalized for acute depression. After subsequent treatment at the Westminster Veterans Hospital near London, Ont., he found
himself in 1968 in what was the country’s most vibrant regional art scene.
London then was home to more than a half-dozen artists—including Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe—who were to become major figures in Canadian art. The effect upon Ewen seems to have been tonic, but it was not until 1971 that, by chance, he found the medium through which he could speak. He began to make
a giant woodcut from a large plywood sheet. But as he gouged at the wood, he realized that the worked plywood itself should be the ground for the image that was in his mind.
The paintings that Paterson Ewen created in 1971 and 1972 are the most radical that he has made in his life. Works of that period were thrown together from the most disparate of materials—metal sheets to represent water, steel chain or strips of tin for
lightning, pieces of linoleum for rocks, coconut matting for the prairie land and black tar for the midnight sky. A key work, Rocks Moving in the Current of a Stream (1971), diagrammatically depicts the way stones move in water using the basest of materials—galvanized metal, pieces of incised linoleum and rivets. In their deliberate crudeness, they were works that ran entirely counter to the prevailing hard-edged orthodoxies of the day—and they had to wait for more than a decade before they found general acceptance.
It is upon that early group of works that the Art Gallery of Ontario’s curator, Philip Monk, has constructed a theory to contain Ewen’s body of work. Monk says that the significance of Ewen’s paintings lies in the way that they were made.
The artist himself has on several occasions given an eloquent explanation of his unorthodox working methods. The pictures he creates rarely derive from direct observation, but germinate from popular scientific publications, photographs or diagrams.
Sometimes an image will ferment for years before Ewen decides to attack it. But once that decision has been made, the assault on the plywood is positively physical. Ewen will place the sheet on sawhorses, make rudimentary lines with a magic marker, then work the surface with a powerful electric router—a machine that makes little allowance for second thoughts.
For Ewen, who divides his time between Toronto, where he lives alone, and London, where he
has a studio on the ground floor of a warehouse, the process seems to have something inexorable about it. “Perhaps,” he declared in a 1977 interview, “I can risk saying something that only the artist would know or dare to proclaim, and that is that, once begun, the
work cannot fail. This is so because I make it come out. Some works of comparable size will have taken six weeks to finish, some have ‘come out’ in three days, but they will emerge from my rotating head at some point and be manifested on the plywood.”
Curator Monk presents a curiously desiccated approach to Ewen’s art. He dismisses as unimportant the psychological sources of Ewen’s obsessively repetitive images—and the heavily symbolic freight that many of them bear. Uneasy with anything that smacks of the emotional, Monk also seems unwilling to consider the sheer painterly richness of Ewen’s later work. Such a one-dimensional view is contradicted by a series of arctic pictures that Ewen completed in 1984, after visiting the North. While lushly beautiful, they are in fact the most conventional landscapes that Ewen has painted. Increasingly, Ewen seems to be interested in grand atmospheric effects. Indeed, in a group of 1987 works that form a climax to the exhibition—and which includes the romantic Ship Wreck—he openly declares himself to be working in the tradition of the sublime that harks back to British painter J. M. W. Turner.
Ewen in fact maintains a running dialogue with the art of the past. Sometimes his homages are acknowledged in such titles as Halley ’s Comet as Seen by Giotto (the 14th-century Italian master) and The Great Wave: Homage to Hokusai (the renowned Japanese printmaker). For years he has proclaimed his fondness for the murky, mystical landscapes of the obscure American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. In turn, Ewen has clearly had an influence on a younger generation of Canadian artists who are impressed as much by his independence as by the work.
Long-admired by his peers, Ewen seems poised to reach a wider audience. The Vancouver Art Gallery organized a major exhibition of his work in 1977, and in 1982 he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. But even for those who are familiar with his painting, Phenomena is likely to provoke a reaction not unlike that inspired by the elemental forces he depicts—something akin to awe.
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