Currently showing at the Olga Korper Gallery is a collection of works by the late canonical Canadian painter Paterson Ewen. Apart from a single lithographic print, the exhibition presents pieces that were all produced during the 1990s, and together they powerfully illustrate the artist’s interest in space, astronomy, cosmic events, and the phenomenal relationship between our physical world and the celestial environment that surrounds it.
Ewen treats the surfaces he paints on as landscapes themselves. Many of the paintings are on raw plywood panels, gouged out with a router to create troughs and peaks evocative of a topographical map, while the remaining are on course and dimpled handcrafted paper, the shallow craters and creases emphasizing where the paint subtly pools. The rough physical quality of Ewen’s surfaces is enhanced with unrefined materials embedded in or sitting on the paintings, physically grounding them and situating them somewhere in the equivocal space between sculpture and painting. For ‘Milky Way in Stone’ (1997), for instance, Ewen blends granite, marble and roofing tar in an expansive painting of our solar system, a textured and monochromatic rendition. Other works in the show feature metal spikes, fencing, and galvanised nails on their surfaces.
Despite the work being materially grounded, the artist’s conceptual interests lie within space, astronomy and the phenomena of weather patterns. Ewen employs his signature use of rudimentary materials to contemplate, through painting, celestial bodies, events, and concepts. ‘Gravitational Force of a Non-Rotating Heavenly Body’ for example presents a large circular plywood face, ambiguously floating in space and marked with blue and pink. Around the shape’s perimeter, elongated nails are arranged to vaguely suggest a clock face, the passage of time, or perhaps the pull of an unidentified force across a planetary body.
Many of the pieces on display illustrate Ewen’s interest in the space where our earthly world, and the extraterrestrial environment beyond, collide and interact with one another. ‘Flip Flop’ (2001), is a painting divided in two; contrasting colours of blue and red meet at the middle, suggesting a horizon line. Basic geometric shapes float over ground and sky, occupying the entirety of the painting and allowing these two worlds, red and blue, to converge into a single, unified environment, commenting, perhaps on the mysterious relationship between our natural world, and the impalpable space that exists beyond it. The science of weather is another area of interest for Ewen, perhaps best represented in this collection with ‘Thunder Cloud as Generator’ (1976). The piece simultaneously evokes landscape and abstraction. A towering storm cloud and the beating rain that falls from its base are obscured by close perspective and crude mark-making. Addition and subtraction symbols are added to suggest the positive and negative charges and scientific processes that results in the falling of rain.
Throughout the exhibition we are reminded of Ewen’s interest in the relationships existing between opposing forces; positives and negatives; material and immaterial, science and art. Though not starkly obvious, arguably Ewen is concerned with the sublime; he strives to explore the unknown through painting, and to draw our attention to what may stir within us simultaneous sensations of awe and fear. A most striking aspect of the artist’s work is its timelessness and relevance to the human experience. Faced with the dreamlike and mysterious quality of Ewen’s paintings, one can’t help but ask oneself “what are we doing here?” or “what purpose do we have?” These are metaphysical questions that, for the mortal human being, will never go out of style.