Paterson Ewen

Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

This traveling show of Paterson Ewen’s works begins with several of his paintings from the early ’70s. At this time he made a sharp break from his formal abstract works of the ’50s and ’60s, seeking a new, less didactic form of expression. The earliest works are Thunderchain, 1971, an assemblage piece made of metal, wood, and linoleum, and Rocks Moving in the Current of a Stream, 1971, whose backdrop of metal and plywood marks a move away from working on canvas. The latter uses diagrammatic symbols—arrows and readable, abstract signs—to represent natural phenomena, a growing source of inspiration for Ewen.

The resonant energy of the large-scale pieces parallels the natural forces they emulate. These quasi scientific works, called “phenomascapes,” depict wind, hail, rain, lightning, solar flares, stars, and planets, but they correspond to no implicit mythology. They bear the same wild, physical sensation as Albert Pinkham Ryder’s marinescapes. Ewen uses a variety of sources for his phenomascapes, such as blowups of climactic maps and astronomical photos, yet these works are based on memory, not actual experience. They have something in common with classical Japanese landscape painting; for example, The Great Wave, 1974, based on Hokusai’s print, and Halley’s Comet as Seen by Giotto, 1979, accept aspects of their original source material, but are recreated as beautifully idiosyncratic icons.

Ewen works on plywood, gouging out forms and adding on metal, wire, and nails, in a physical tug-of-war with the materials. The expressive colors and textural freedom of the phenomascapes removes them from the realms of representation and reflection. In recent works such as Solar Eruption, 1981, and Moon Over Water, 1987, both acrylic on plywood, the manipulation of material, surface, light, and spatial composition completely replaces the earlier signs and symbols. The use of pure lines—automatically rendered directional indicators—continues in the later works, but they become a visual device intended to move one’s eye over the composition. In depicting the evanescence of passing universal phenomena, Ewen creates the appearance of material substantiality. The works exist as ritual, as personal incarnations of remembered experience mapped out through the phenomenology of making.

John K. Grande