Though we often associate Abstract Expressionism with artistic greats such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, many artists from around the world were exploring expressive techniques during the same period. One such artist, the French-Canadian Jean McEwen, was a talented colourist who used experimental techniques to create glorious works of art. Using a palette knife, a sponge and eventually his bare hands, McEwen expressed both his emotions and his artistic decision making through his paintings. Spending time looking at a piece by McEwen allows one to notice dramatic variations in colour and texture. These changes in visual composition create action and life within the static realm of his canvas. McEwen, like Pollock, creates dynamic works that can be explored time and time again.
Both the Abstract Expressionists of New York, and Les Automatistes of Montreal, sought to discover new methods of painting. Using the simple vocabulary of paint, brush, canvas, and body, artists were able to access a subconscious level of visual communication. By stripping their techniques of all rules, traditions, and inhibitions, artists began to paint what they felt, expressing inner joy, turmoil, and experience directly onto their canvas.
Jean McEwen began his career in pharmaceuticals, but as time progressed, the vivid world of painting drew him in. In the early 1950s, he moved to Paris where he encountered many art historical classics and began to develop his own painterly hand. Through encounters with artists such as Jean-Paul Riopelle, McEwen began to discover alternatives to the traditional styles of painting. Upon returning to Montreal, McEwen began painting directly with his hands, presumably, to create a more direct connection between artist and canvas, and thus artist and viewer.
The two pieces by McEwen in our collection demonstrate his eloquent approach to painting expressively. In Jaune assiege par des bruns, McEwen paints his canvas brown, only to cover most of it with a thick layer of yellow. Unevenly applied, the yellow serves to reveal the brown. We are only permitted to see what McEwen wants us to see, allowing for three distinct strips and a splattering of small specks to peek through. Throughout the piece, we are aware that the brown is there, even when it is invisible. Using a simple combination of two colours, he has created a structure that guides our eyes around the canvas.
In his later work, Compagnon de Silence No. 1, McEwen again uses brown as a colour that is fighting to emerge. In this piece, however, McEwen seems much less self-conscious. The cavernous brown emanation is the centerpiece of the painting, pushing against its translucent white boundary. This rich and complexly layered brown is where McEwen allows for inconsistency, chance, and error to shine through. The brown center is dark and complex; it suggests depth and layers, even beyond what we can see on its surface. In this case, the finished product is merely a suggestion of the process of its creation. Throughout the piece, we can see instances of decision making. Whether it is the dark drips or thick globs of mixed paint, McEwen has permitted us to bear witness to his techniques. These finished canvases present us with endless suggestions of what went on throughout the process.
Acquired from two different Toronto galleries, these pieces are brought together by the tastes of Helen and Walter Zwig. McEwen sought to explore his materials, and in so doing, he was able to create more approachable works of art. Unlike what came before, we are permitted access to the artist’s process, mistakes and decisions. Artists such as McEwen were not interested in perfection; instead, they were seeking to reveal something from deep within.