Jean McEwen's 1973 Compagnon de Silence (the title comes from a poem by Paul Valéry) is a stunning canvas, one which pushes the boundaries of the artist's investigation into structural arrangement and experimental handling of paint, and triumphs. This powerful work features several characteristics that mark McEwen's most profound developments, testifying to his extensive exploration of light, colour, gesture and tactility.
In Paris in the early 1950s, McEwen exchanged ideas with Jean-Paul Riopelle and Sam Francis, and first developed his renowned all-over technique. Since the act of painting was central to his process, McEwen gradually gave up the paintbrush and palette knife altogether and by 1955, began to apply paint directly to canvas with his hands. In his 1956 Jardin de givre (Garden of Frost) series, he blanketed a coloured ground with an undulating layer of white paint, allowing the background to subtly glow through the ghostly top layer; he adapted this groundbreaking technique to his later works, and did so in Compagnon de Silence to great effect.
Within several short years, McEwen was dividing the planes of colour in his canvases with "spines" and "margins," creating sections that were often worked and reworked many times. This technique serves to create a sense of tension and contrast within the arrangement, inviting the viewer to enter into a deeper examination of the painting's multiple strata.
In Compagnon de Silence, McEwen has established a middle ground of burnt russet reminiscent of Rembrandt, and plays with the effects of lighting, framing the central area with ochre margins and his signature heavenly white above and below. Investigating not only the nature of colour but of the media itself, McEwen worked with varnish as well as paint; the picture's surface varies between fine, transparent layers revealing individual drips and brushstrokes, to highly worked swaths of canvas with built-up layers of impasto, testifying to the artist's commitment to rendering the gesture evident in his works.
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