- Marconi in the Sculpture of John McEwen: Essays by John McEwen, Ann Pollock, and Mary Reid
Marconi in the Sculpture of John McEwen is an exhibition catalogue tracing forty years of a major sculptor's work, beginning with a steel dog, [End Page 462] 2.5 inches thick, sitting beside a dog chain and collar. The chain ends in a ring that is free to slide the length of a flexible steel cable. Marconi sits motionless, looking somewhere past the items that formerly constrained him. The dog is both subject and object. As a sculpture the dog remains mute and motionless, but as a subject it looks where animals look. This early sculpture (1977-78), this minimalist investigation, was a work stripped to its barest narrative elements, catching the central contradiction of art. The animal that is represented is both there and not there. The life of the world is independent of the projections of the human psyche.
Over four decades, McEwen has exhibited his work nationally and internationally, alternating his art practice between public commissions and solo exhibitions. His public commissions include the Royal Canadian Air Force Hall of Tribute in the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa (1984), with its Herculean casting of a bronze floor mirroring the topography of the globe, and a twenty-foot engraved soaring cast bronze canoe, River as Thread, the Canoe as Needle, in the open passage of the new Canadian Embassy in Berlin (2005).
In his notes to a recent exhibition in Halifax, 'Ocean Mind / Ocean Stories' (2009), McEwen described himself as 'a thinker with things and in particular things in the form of animals. Often life-size, often canine, these animals are usually flame-cut from solid steel plate.' And it is certainly true that the animal has been one of the dominant forms in his lexicon. However, his more recent work has been expanding his vocabulary into the world of heavenly space and into the world of the sea. He began with stars as ideograms in 1991 and has continued with them as building blocks, constructing star vessels, urns, submarines, and even scuba diving tanks.
McEwen's work is focused on the semi-permeable membrane that separates contraries, material and immaterial, real and chimerical, present and absent. It is built form as ideas, itself embodying the contradictions that lie at the heart of human life. As craft, over the decades, his paradoxical work, defying its own weight, has grown in delicacy of execution and meditative power, taking us deeper and deeper with each installation into the politics, dreams, and fears of our own times.
The current catalogue is itself a paradox: masquerading as an accompaniment to a site specific exhibition, it is in fact a catalogue raisonne´ but one that deconstructs the usual protocols, the conventional chronologies. Works from different periods are placed in juxtaposition to one another and sometimes recapitulated. Older works are shot through new lenses, colour interacts with black-and-white photography, quotations from literary, philosophical, and ecological texts with narration by the artist and commentary by critics.
Each of the three catalogue essays deals with the philosophical and material propositions put forward in McEwen's work. They do overlap [End Page 463] but each seems essential to an understanding of this enormous and compelling body of work. As curator, Mary Reid focuses on the exhumation and restoration of the pivotal artifact, Marconi. She situates the placing of the work for the exhibit and suggests some future considerations. Anne Pollock, who first worked with McEwen at the Vancouver Art Gallery in a group show in 1979, considers the work in the trajectory of the artist's career. Her references to Bruce Chatwin's Songlines are particularly apt, as Chatwin, like McEwen, insists on the importance of staying connected with ancient patterns of behaviour and thought. The final essay, by the artist himself, 'Notes towards a Working Minimalism,' ties together in an open-ended meditation the preceding essays, the photographs of the works and installations, and the reconfigurations...