Paterson Ewen: Phenomena (1987)

Paterson Ewen: Phenomena, Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1987.

This was an exhibition commitment that I inherited from my predecessor at the Art Gallery of Ontario but that I adapted so it would not be seen to be a retrospective. Also see "Condemned to History (But Not Invited to Lunch)," a response to Greg Curnoe's and Andy Patton's critiques of my catalogue text [click to read or scroll down]. The last sentence of my reply should have been, I realized on first reading it in print, "And the rest is history."

Click to read original publication


Design: Bruce Mau

Design: Bruce Mau


Condemned to History (but not invited to lunch)

A letter in reply to Greg Curnoe and Andy Patton

Had Greg Curnoe actually read my introduction and not merely listed it (!) among the section headings of my essay, he would have discovered what I was and what I was not writing. Compositionally, an introduction serves that purpose and for that reason I repeat it here:

This exhibition charts Paterson Ewen’s movement through landscape imagery, from the early “abstractions” with their rudimentary signs of and material resemblances to landscape, through the semiotic schemata of weather phenomena, to the more painterly evocations of the phenomena of light and space.

The focus in the exhibition is on the plywood landscape paintings. If the landscape works constitute a break in both the image and practice of Ewen’s art, it is logical to limit the exhibition to what most fully exemplifies that break, rather than try to lead up to it with earlier works as if to keep the career within the narrative model of the retrospective. Needless to say, the notion of the retrospective is implicitly questioned in this presentation. In accordance with this conviction, the catalogue text avoids the narrative pull of a history and instead concentrates on the materials and methods of Ewen’s practice. Insofar as the images of Ewen’s work are discussed, they are treated in their sign function, where image and appearance are brought together in the materials of presentation. If phenomena can be recognized as a type of sign, their transcription in art is a further semiotic interpretation.

It is perfectly clear that I was writing neither a history nor a biography, and that these very terms, as traditionally thought, were under question in the essay. Moreover, the presentation of the work in the exhibition implicitly called into question (which I explicitly repeat here) the model of the retrospective, allied as it is to an academic, narrative art history (you know: the first works anticipate the last and, in turn, are interpreted by what comes after; but none are treated in their own right, which is also the result biography and “influences” bring into play). Perhaps, it is not so much a particular idea of history I am avoiding as the tampering with the retrospective format—with which Greg Curnoe has been honoured—that Curnoe finds so objectionable.

I am more willing to listen to Andy Patton, however long his and Curnoe’s lunch must have been as they came to agreement on my abuses of history and Paterson Ewen. How is one, after all, to interpret the uncanny resemblance of their arguments?

At least Patton knew what I was attempting in the catalogue and the exhibition, and he actually starts from the introduction Curnoe overlooks. But for Patton not only have I not produced a history, even if I wanted to I would not be able. I don’t quite know how to respond to a lengthy argument that deals with a subject I did not engage nor really feel that I should have to justify not pursuing: for instance, “if Monk had been committed to writing a history.” This was not my task; and I can’t help but think that the seriousness of Patton’s critique is marred by the misdirection of his analysis. (In quoting my “the measure of competency of a curator should be: how many histories is one capable of,” Patton presumes that the presentation of a history can only be written, whereas I was implying that a curator has to present multiple histories through a collection. I find it revealing that Patton wants to hold me to the altogether different criteria expressed in my past practice as a critic and does not refer to a more programmatic text I produced as a curator, “In Retrospect: Presenting Events.”) Nevertheless, let’s take one of the criticisms, for instance, the notion of the“break.” Andy Patton writes 346 lines and more, approximately 2750 words—a good sized article in itself—on my mention of this word. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I did not use this word as a “concept” or “model” as Patton reads it. Not for me the coupure épistémologique of French post-structuralism; I was using the word in its ordinary English sense. (The past tense “broke” gives hint of this usage in the first line of the essay.) That gets away from any non-existent claims I might have made for a model of avant-garde or modernist rupture as opposed to some consideration of historical continuity or any suggestions Patton reads into my—once again non-existent—claims for Ewen’s as an avant-garde practice. Yes, Andy, after all he is a landscape painter as you and I point out. Patton’s statement “For one ofthe most obvious things about the works is that they are landscapes” gives permission to think otherwise about Ewen’s work.

These other and not obvious things were the aim of my essay. The claims that I made for the materials and methods of Ewen’s practice were my way of celebrating his art whose essential character and achievement I saw as “paintings with the power to signify by profoundly material means.” Patton seems to think that I have thus reduced Ewen’s paintings to merely material objects detached from any form of significance; but their marvellous quality is that they are signifying things. Patton instead would have me write about Ewen’s works as if they were emblems of history or indices of biography. After all, he claims I should read Ewen’s paintings in terms of “the mounting ecological disasters we have created” and look at the materials and methods of his art in light of his personal upheavals and marriage breakdown.

What is it in my close attention to what an artist actually produces that Curnoe and Patton find so abusive of the artist’s intentions? What is it about Ewen especially that makes the biographical detail and environmental milieu so essential? Why has History been taken as the offended party with Curnoe and Patton so willing to be its advocates? What makes these respondents so uneasy that they either have to insult me and produce their own (and let’s keep the emphasis on proprietary) history (Curnoe) or invest energy in a willful misreading (Patton)? And they are not alone, judging by other published responses to the exhibition. I can understand why traditional academics and journalists have their orthodoxies unsettled, but why these painters? Could it be that Greg Curnoe, for instance, worries what would be left of his works if we concerned ourselves with the materials and methods and avoided their (auto)biographical content? Having re-read my essay, somehow I feel that this demand for history and context, rather than letting the work stand in its own right, is an unconsciously envious attempt by Curnoe and Patton to diminish the achievements of Ewen’s art.

Why are both so offended by my mention—and their misreading—of Snow, Smithson, Morris, Pollock and Serra as if these were considered as influences or measures? They were merely means of directing expectation from traditional landscape image and iconography to the materials and methods of Ewen’s work. By the way, I don’t need Greg Curnoe to tell me how to be nationalistic.

And please tell me, Mr. Curnoe, what is this “real chronology” you demand? Is it something like a real man and not just an American gigolo? Does it go something like this: “1968, moves to London, meets Greg Curnoe”?        

“Condemned to History (But Not Invited to Lunch),” Parachute, no. 56 (October – December 1989), pp. 78-79.