Evenings I gaze upon the glory of the sunset and wait to watch the rising of the moon, or see an eagle, high above me, flying far, and ponder on the fact that they, the sun and moon, and the eagle are free to follow their natural course. In winter I stand out upon my snow-bound lake, by whose shores my beaver sleep…
Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin (Grey Owl), Beaver Lodge, Prince Albert National Park, 1936.
John McLean is the son of a painter, the late Talbert McLean (1906-92), and was an artistic prodigy at an early age. He is now in his seventh decade of giving independent painterly creations to the wide world. For, despite his Scottish heritage, McLean is an internationalist. Raised in Kirriemuir and Arbroath, he studied at St Andrews University before moving to London to join the Courtauld Institute of Art in the mid-1960s. At the Courtauld his innate judgement of painting (and sculpture, and architecture) was enlarged by expert discussions of European and American culture in former centuries. He also met people who knew about recent American art and its clear new beginnings after the decline of Abstract Expressionism.
I think that McLean may be called a learned artist. This has less to do with academic knowledge than of assimilation. However simple and direct are McLean’s forms, they have been moulded by long acquaintance with the art of his predecessors. We cannot speak of any single or definite influence on his paintings. They could never be mistaken for the work of any other artist nor has anyone tried to imitate him. McLean’s paintings soar above derivation and have an aerial quality. That may be linked to their artist’s love of music, and particularly the airs of a single voice elevated in song.
Therefore an invisible muse of his art is the painter’s wife, Jan McLean, a singer and connoisseur of vocal chamber music. Her gift to his work on canvas has been both steady and as exquisitely changeful as the light of day. It is as unquantifiable as the sky. McLean himself, in the short personal statement that introduces this exhibition, tells us of his sensitivity to light, the least tangible part of landscape painting. In particular, he remarks on the quality of Canadian light; and this is one theme of his Emma Lake paintings, made in a distant place he first visited in 1981.
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The nature of the Emma Lake Art Camp must first be described by the ways of travelling to join its unique community. From London one flies over the North Pole to Calgary. There one boards another plane for Saskatoon. From thence there is a long drive north on Highway 81. The visitor feels the end of prairies and wheatland, where plains yield to sharper horizons, hillier land: stony, rugged at times, not at all arable, traversed by great yet unnamed rivers. Pine trees begin, one or two, then in clumps and forests. One halts at Prince Albert for supplies. Here the railroad (and television) ends, or begins; and for years this remote town has been a gathering point for native Indians who have come from the Northern Territory to find work, pay, medicine, modern urban life ‘down in Canada’, as they say.
Prince Albert is not large and has only one main street but possesses a slightly industrial atmosphere. Here the Emma Lake sculptors will spend some time in Mackenzie’s scrapyard behind the railway line, to pick over the metal they will take by truck for future work at their camp. Prince Albert also provides welding equipment and has a State Liquor Store, appreciated by friendly artists who—and now we approach the end of our journey—will live together in a place beyond an Indian reservation, where the forests are thicker, lakes have been formed and beavers and bears have their homes. After only another hundred miles to the north, pine trees cannot grow.
As many people have found, the experience of Emma Lake is oddly temporal. It is as though one were removed from the contemporary world in time, not merely by geography. Barnett Newman, the New York artist who in 1959 was the first prominent American painter to be invited to Emma Lake, said that he was attracted to north Saskatchewan because the camp was close to ‘the pure side of the arctic tundra’ and was therefore, in some way, timeless. Paintings from John McLean’s visits to Emma Lake may be interpreted as heedless of the rush of time, of contemporaneity. Yet there are differences between the two painters. Newman strived for his vision, as symbolist painters usually do. In McLean’s art metaphysics comes without stress, and as though by nature.
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Abandoning, for the moment, such elevated thoughts we return to the Saskatchewan ground. How did the Emma Lake workshop come about, and why is it there, so far away? Its history is legendary in the modern art world but has not been much studied. All accounts mention the renowned names of the ‘workshop leaders’, as they are called. Prominent among them, after Newman in 1959, were Clement Greenberg in 1962, Kenneth Noland in 1963, Jules Olitski in 1964, John Cage in 1965 (for there is often a longing for music beneath the Emma lake pines) and Frank Stella in 1967. Ron Kitaj was there in 1970, Anthony Caro in 1977, John Elderfield and Friedel Dzubas in 1979. John McLean visited Emma Lake five times in the 1980s and also painted in Saskatoon. The paintings in the present exhibition date from 1984, 1985 and 1988.
To continue with this background description: Emma Lake is not only remote from any art capital but also from commerce and the media. No-one goes to the camp in search of professional advancement. It should be added that Emma Lake is far away from formal education. In the woods beside the gently lapping waters one is unaware of any affiliation with the University of Saskatchewan. It is relevant that Canada has no central education system. In its three territories and ten provinces are seventy-seven universities. They have different types of self-government, interests and attainments and are seldom competitive. A relaxed attitude to academic direction has contributed to the atmosphere of the Emma Lake camp—and there are parallels with the happy days of British art schools, thirty or forty years ago.
The University of Saskatchewan was founded in 1907. It offered classes in the history of art, and then in creative art, from 1923. This was guided by Augustus Kenderdine, a painter who in the summer months lived and worked in a shack at Emma Lake. In those days, and their nights, he would have illuminated his cabin with a birch-bark torch. Electricity followed. So also did rough carpentry. The art camp was first gathered in 1955. Today, it still resembles an improvised village for prospectors or explorers—as indeed it is, in artistic terms. Everything is shared. In the large open painting studio there are no private spaces. The invited ‘workshop leader’ has no position of authority. He or she paints side by side with fifteen or twenty other artists. Sculptors have a workshop and a pad in the woods, where they belong.
Camp records are helpful to metropolitan art historians. Workshop leaders have been Canadian, American or British. Other artists who travelled to the north of the prairie province have also been from the anglophone countries. In the summer communities we find husbands and wives, one or two generations of a family and in general a large proportion of women artists. All have been beyond student age and therefore independent painters or sculptors. They went gladly to Emma Lake, but not to be taught. Many were the hints of ideas they took from each other, but there has never been an Emma Lake house style.
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Two weeks at Emma Lake can change an artist’s work. In McLean’s canvases, the changes were not a matter of influence. He was too experienced a painter to adjust his course as the result of someone else’s example. I think rather of the intangible benison of confidence that occasionally comes to avant-garde artists as they reach their second maturity. Such confidence can lead to untroubled bursts of creation. So it has been with McLean: for at Emma Lake he was able to produce a supreme yet almost nonchalant canvas nearly every day that he worked. It happens that—not by any design—there is a relevant comparison in the sculpture made at the camp by Anthony Caro, in 1977. Techniques of modelling and carving are unsuitable to short stays at Emma Lake, so sculpture there has been made by assemblage, quick fabrication, tig-welding. With these methods Caro made some dozen sculptures that are lightsome, gracious, unanswerable.
Thus they surpassed improvisation. I add that they are the most aerial of Caro’s work in metal. So here is one clue to John McLean’s Emma Lake paintings. The sculptures and paintings by two men are as complementary as they are distinct. McLean and Caro, long-time friends, have shared attitudes. In particular, they have been a part of the comradely greeting between British and American fine art since the 1960s. Two former Emma Lake painters contributed to that friendship. There was, first, the pure use of colour by Kenneth Noland (although McLean’s palette is more subtle, less declarative); and then Jules Olitski’s undefinable attention to the size and the four edges of his canvas.
As is apparent in this exhibition (though not in its catalogue illustrations) McLean’s paintings are all of different sizes. This might seem a banal matter. In truth it is intriguing. We are led to thoughts about nature, meditation and the aesthetic experience. Let us first of all consider the tall canvases and the elongated canvases. Whether high or widespread, they all seem to imply a vision of the world. It is tempting to call them windowscapes (high) or landscapes (long). But that would be to lessen the mystery of their inherent character. For we do not know whether we are in the world of air and nature or in the world of the mind: or in the presence of pure sight. The varying sizes of the edges of these paintings then tell us that art alone has made a judgement.
McLean is a delicate master of the relationship between dimensions and content. The differing sizes and the role of the edge have come about because he painted on the floor rather than at an easel. Decisions were then made about the final area of a canvas before it was stretched and framed. Cropping a painting can be an upsetting task for any artist, which is why many of them ask for the help of another painter’s eye when using masking tape and roughly hoisting the unstretched work onto a wall.
McLean, I fancy, has enough knowledge of his own eye not to need such advice. He is a master of self-connoisseurship and has been especially so since the short period in the early 1970s when his techniques began to include staining and the use of acrylic paint applied with hand-crafted squeegees rather than traditional brushes.
These new methods encouraged McLean to an exceptional kinship between eye, hand and the painted surface. As all the Emma Lake paintings show, he had made himself a virtuoso of touch. No other contemporary artist has such a command of a stroke of paint: a stroke more extended than could be managed by a brush but with all the skill of brushwork, and with an enlarged ability to carry a single colour. Some Emma paintings, generally the tall ones, have as many as fifteen or twenty of these strokes and it is a wonder that, despite the fact that they are of different colours, the painting they inhabit is a unity.
McLean the colourist cannot be described in other than his own terms. Like most modern abstract painters he seems not to have inherited much from flower painting, or the heightened hues of dyed fabrics as reported in grand old figuration. Over the decades we have seen less affinity with the colour of American abstract art. Neither does McLean have closeness with the colours of ancient landscape, bound as it is to the ground, grass, trees. His colour comes from light, and thus he has an especial devotion to his eyesight in the faraway lands of north Saskatchewan. There have been many other reasons for McLean’s returns to Emma Lake. He has been an independent artist who belongs to no group, except by friendship; personally gregarious, always generous, as ready with a song as advice: for his eyes and heart have given us the painterly lyrics of our time.
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This exhibition opens and concludes with two paintings that were not made at Emma Lake.* The first of them is from 1977, at the period of McLean’s first maturity. The second was painted last year, in 2012. This is not the place to speak of McLean’s most recent work. I merely report that friends have found a new sprightliness in his art, which seems—against everything we know of later life—to be a new beginning, and as capable of elfishness as of the magisterial.
* Senza (1977) and Soticone (2012) will be shown at 148 New Bond Street but are not illustrated in this catalogue
John McLean Another Light: Prairie Journey is on at the Fine Art Society from the 6th to the 26th of September. The text above is from the exhibition’s catalogue, which also includes an contribution by John Elderfield.
Text is copyright the author, courtesy of the Fine Art Society. Images copyright the artist, courtesy of the Fine Art Society.