Who Was Edmund Alleyn? Rediscovering a Mercurial and Untimely Talent

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Staging a major retrospective of Edmund Alleyn as a flagship summer show is a bold move on the part of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Alleyn, who was born in Quebec City in 1931, and died in Montreal in 2004, is almost entirely unknown outside of Quebec, and even within his home province the breadth and diversity of his work have been only sporadically exhibited. Despite two substantial publications issued since his death, Alleyn remains obscure.

In part, the artist’s ambiguous position in Quebec’s art history is a result of his eccentric career arc and contrarian disposition. Being born into an Anglophone household in Quebec City cast him as an outsider, a status compounded by a move to Paris in his twenties, where he remained for fifteen years, returning only to witness the changes wrought by Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the early 1970s. From shortly after his return until his retirement in the early ‘90s, he held a teaching position at the University of Ottawa, to which he commuted, maintaining his studio in Montreal. For much of his career, then, Alleyn had only one foot in the Quebec art scene, hampering his visibility within the very sphere most inclined to reward him.

Moreover, Alleyn seems to have always been adjacent to major historical moments while perpetually out of step with contemporary trends. Taken together, his series of abrupt stylistic shifts – from lyrical abstraction in the mid-1950s and early ‘60s, to “cybernetic” figurative painting in the mid-‘60s, experiments with film and technological sculpture inspired by his participation in the 1968 uprisings in Paris; his proto-installation, painting-sculpture hybrid Quebec Suite of the ‘70s; and his eventual retreat into the moody private landscapes of his large-scale ‘80s and ‘90s paintings – appear as alternative proposals for what contemporary art could be, continually at odds with reigning tendencies. To take Alleyn’s work seriously is to gain a new perspective on received narratives about recent art history.

In this regard, a retrospective is exactly the format required to appreciate Alleyn’s varied output, and curator Mark Lanctôt has put together a fascinating, rewarding, and long-overdue survey (Alleyn’s only previous retrospective was in 1996-97, and only half the size of this present show). The exhibition is full of surprises, even for those who thought they knew the artist. Titled Dans mon atelier, je suis plusieurs (In My Studio, I am Many), it presents a compelling argument for Alleyn’s recuperation, partly on the basis that his dynamism and restless resistance to categorization are what make him contemporary. Untimely in his own moment, he appears unexpectedly fresh in ours.

Lanctôt’s curating illuminates some of the under-examined artistic milieus in which Alleyn circulated, and situates him as a provocative investigator of painting’s currency as contemporary art. Alleyn’s attempts to wrestle with his medium’s place in a world of technologically-mediated images seem particularly relevant at a moment when painting is resurgent and questions of technology are ubiquitous in art – a fact underscored by the MAC’s concurrent exhibition of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch – and, indeed, when the present relation between painting and “the digital” is a very hot topic.

The first room of Dans mon atelier, devoted to the abstract paintings that Alleyn produced in Paris during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, is the most conventional. In a youthful incident that launched Alleyn to notoriety (undocumented here), he submitted a “fake” Automatiste painting to an exhibition curated by Paul-Emile Borduas, in 1954, creating a minor local stir. But despite his rejection of the regionally-dominant abstract style, his subsequent non-figurative canvases conform tidily to the tendencies then prevalent in Europe. The drab, earthy tones and rough paint application of his work up to 1962 accords with much Tachisme and Art Informel of the era. His increasingly animated, colorful paintings of 1962-64, whose ideographic and biomorphic forms derived from Alleyn’s burgeoning interest in North American Indigenous art, share in the calligraphic flourishes common to much French Abstraction Lyrique.

The inclusion here of works from Alleyn’s “native” period is notable, especially given that none appeared in his previous retrospective. It is likely that Indigenous iconography initially appealed to Alleyn’s proto-hippie sensibilities, informed by a now-questionable mythology of the “noble savage,” as well as offering an inventory of forms that were neither European nor Quebecois, but pan-North-American.

Edmund Alleyn, "La Crevasse," 1960.

Edmund Alleyn, “La Crevasse,” 1960.

This brief period of Alleyn’s career came to an end when, as a discreet wall text explains, he encountered actual Indigenous artifacts on a visit to the National Museum of Canada in 1964. “There I realized that I was plundering, that I was trying to perhaps express a civilization that was not my own,” Alleyn stated in an interview. Furthermore, he also began to consider that he was indulging in escapism, running away from “the reality that was beginning to make its way into my studio and trouble me, like the Vietnam War, like all sorts of social conditions.”

Perhaps ironically, it was during the period covered in this first room that Alleyn enjoyed his greatest notoriety, twice winning a Guggenheim international art award and representing Canada (in group shows) at the São Paolo and Venice Biennials in 1959 and 1960. It is possible to see these laurels as a reward to a provincial artist for successfully replicating the “correct” international style. However, it was the “reality” and the “social conditions” troubling Alleyn in 1964 that would prompt the first of his dramatic stylistic evolutions, setting the stage for subsequent metamorphoses that led the artist further and further away from dominant trends and easy categorization.

Edmund Alleyn, "Fête aux lanternes chez les Sioux, peuple pacifique," 1964.

Edmund Alleyn, “Fête aux lanternes chez les Sioux, peuple pacifique,” 1964.

Rounding the corner into the second room of the exhibition, viewers will encounter The Big Sleep (1968), a work so different from any of Alleyn’s early paintings that it is difficult to accept as the work of the same artist. The piece is a large, wall-based sculpture that resembles some kind of science fiction console from a lab or spaceship, incorporating a “screen” with a painted illustration of a human brain (punctuated by blinking lights), a series of vials full of blue fluid, a reel-to-reel tape apparatus, a small projection screen that displays a series of still images, and an inset window containing a mannequin head with a mask-and-hose contraption fitted over its mouth. By pressing a button, viewers can activate the whole ensemble into blinking, flashing life. How did Alleyn transition from his work of the early ‘60s to this?

Edmund Alleyn, "The Big Sleep," 1968. Copyright ©1997, 2016. The CCCA Canadian Art Database.

Edmund Alleyn, “The Big Sleep,” 1968. Copyright ©1997, 2016. The CCCA Canadian Art Database.

It’s a question partly answered by the suite of paintings that fill the second room, which Alleyn produced between 1966 and 1973. If his “native” works showed the beginnings of a return to figuration, it exploded here in paintings like his massive untitled canvas of 1966, which depicts human bodies penetrated, probed, and conjoined with electronic and mechanical gadgetry, executed in Day-Glo and metallic paint with the use of stencils. It’s a diagrammatic, machine-finish aesthetic light years removed from his expressive, impasto abstractions of only two years earlier. This sudden obsession with the alienating effects of technological society can be seen as the flipside of Alleyn’s previous pastoral fantasy: the “social condition” that he was trying to escape and had now turned to face.

A number of other factors also influenced this new direction in Alleyn’s work. Partly as a critical reaction to the influx of American Pop Art (and American pop culture generally) and to the turbulent political climate of the era (the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Algerian Revolution, etc.), a number of French artists in this period were also turning away from the dominant abstraction towards representational painting as a way of addressing overt social content. This Narrative Figuration, though almost entirely ignored by Anglo-American art history, was enormously important to French intellectual life. Important thinkers such as Pierre Bourdieu, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida all commented on artists associated with the movement, and some have argued that these encounters were germinal for the very idea of postmodernism. Alleyn was included in the Mythologies Quotidiennes exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1964 that launched Narrative Figuration, and his “cybernetic” paintings share the caustic, even dystopian tone that sets this movement apart from American Pop Art’s glib embrace of commodity and celebrity culture.

Edmund Alleyn, "Sans Titre," 1966.

Edmund Alleyn, “Sans Titre,” 1966.

What is perhaps most striking about Alleyn’s cybernetic paintings, though, is that he chose to address the question of technological control through painting at all. In fact, his commitment to the medium would be increasingly shaken throughout the late ‘60s as he participated in the cultural and political upheavals of the era. In 1966, he became friendly with composer Philip Glass, who took him to an event staged by the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group the following year in New York. In 1967, Alleyn also appeared in both the Canadian and French pavilions of Expo ’67, and was invited to Cuba with a group of French artists and poets to experience socialism firsthand. In 1968, he took an active role in the student strikes in Paris, helping to produce protest posters in the storied Atelier Populaire. Following this latter experience, Alleyn began plans for what would be perhaps his most singular work in a career full of outliers: Introscaphe, his only technological work other than The Big Sleep.

Eventually unveiled in 1970 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Introscaphe is a white, egg-shaped cockpit set on a platform, like a small spacecraft. Visitors were invited to insert two one-franc coins, upon which the unit opened up automatically. The visitor could step inside and take a seat in the vinyl chair, and the Introscaphe would reseal itself. The user was then subjected to a four-and-a-half minute experimental film (a condensed version of Alias, a short that Alleyn produced in 1969), projected on a screen in front of them and accompanied by surround sound, synchronized vibrations, and temperature variations within the chamber.

Edmund Alleyn, "Introscaphe I," 1968-70.

Edmund Alleyn, “Introscaphe I,” 1968-70. Collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

Though it was a sensation in Paris, where over 800 viewers participated, Introscaphe was short lived. While on exhibition in Quebec City in 1971, the machine malfunctioned and has never been successfully repaired. It appears in the current show as a purely sculptural artifact, while Alias – a psychedelic, quasi-Situationist pastiche of found footage, still photos, and original imagery that mashes up race riots, Vietnam combat, Communist propaganda, and critiques of news media and consumerism – is screened in a nearby black box.

The exhibition of these works today sheds new light on the under-studied convergence of technological art and late-Sixties protest culture – the latter being far more often associated with Conceptual art and related experiments with ephemeral and reproducible formats like earthworks, performance, body art, text, photography, and video. However, Introscaphe’s breakdown also coincided with the decline of E.A.T. following their failed pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka, as well as the overwhelming negative reception to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1971 Art + Technology exhibition. By the early 1970s, high technology was simply too associated with the military-industrial complex to be palatable to most of the counter-culturally-inclined artworld.

Though Alleyn did not continue making films or produce any further works on the model of Introscaphe – which he had originally conceived as a kind of platform or venue for screening other filmic content – it seems that his personal crisis had little to do with the fate of “Tech Art” more generally. Instead, it was his decision to leave Paris and return to Montreal that had the greatest impact on his work. Alleyn found his former home much changed, split by nationalist strife and blighted by urban decline following the brief heyday of the ’67 moment. For two years after resettling, Alleyn made no art; during this period of soul-searching, he separated from his first wife and began teaching in Ottawa.

His next body of work, which occupies the third gallery space of Dans mon atelier, was inaugurated by his 1974 solo exhibition at the MACM, Une belle fin de journée, in which he once again surprised an unsuspecting public with an entirely new style. The Quebec Suite consists of realistic portraits of average Quebeckers mounted on freestanding sheets of Plexiglas and positioned in front of large-scale paintings that integrate kitschy sunsets into motifs borrowed from Mondrian or Rothko. The portraits, based on photographs that Alleyn shot at La Ronde, a popular amusement park next to the Expo ’67 site, were rendered with the aid of a slide projector and described by Alleyn as an “ironization of painting in relation to film,” characteristic of the interplay between the handmade and technically-mediated that characterizes virtually all of Alleyn’s work from the mid-‘60s on.

The figures are an ethnographic gallery of the era’s signature fashions, featuring loud leisure suits, shaggy haircuts, and bellbottoms galore. Not unlike Duane Hanson’s hyperrealist sculptures of the same period, they seem to revel in populist kitsch, both celebrating the vulgarity of typical Québecitude while also standing at an ironic distance from it. It’s also worth mentioning that each Plexiglas-mounted portrait includes, on its rear face, a stencilled fleur-de-lys logotype reading “Made in Quebec – La Belle Province.”

Meanwhile, the sunset backdrops are a pointed jab at the neo-formalist geometric abstraction (such as that of Claude Tousignant or Guido Molinari) then prominent in Quebec. In this respect, Alleyn’s Quebec Suite was a way of proclaiming his non-allegiance to all of the dominant local styles, whether Plasticien painting or the conceptual work being made by artists associated with Véhicule Art and the nascent scene of artist-run centers. Nevertheless, Alleyn’s highly original combination of painted and sculptural elements – an early and perhaps accidental example of installation art – reflects the artist’s ongoing crisis of faith in the possibility of painting as sufficient, in itself, to secure its own relevance or contemporaneity.

This crisis is muted and perhaps laid to rest in Alleyn’s works of the 1980s and after, as he recommitted himself to large-scale painting and painterly craft. If the Quebec Suite entailed a retreat from the overt politicization of Alleyn’s previous period, it still grappled with the social life of its moment. By contrast, Alleyn’s works from the late 1970s onward become increasingly personal and introspective. Tellingly, the human figure, central to Alleyn’s output since the mid-‘60s, slowly disappears from his paintings of the ‘80s, which are primarily landscapes and still-lifes, pervaded with an atmosphere of solitude and bathed in melancholy shades of crepuscular light.

Edmund Alleyn, "Sans Titre," 1976.

Edmund Alleyn, “Sans Titre,” 1976.

A bridge period, epitomized by Alleyn’s Blue Prints of 1978, connects his Quebec Suite to his later paintings of the 1980s. Many of his mid-to-late ‘70s works feature bucolic images of lakeside vacationers subjected to effects derived from film or video processing: whole scenes or individual silhouettes are repeated, duplicated, and reversed. In Carousel (1981, the title clearly a reference to a slide projector), multiple small frames in shades of blue are overlaid on a central black-and-white image of figures lounging on a dock. These pictures, with their evocative cocktail of nostalgia blended with voyeuristic tension, also exhibit a sketch-like quality of experimentation: some are in graphite and colored pencil, some in gouache, and one, L’Heure fixe (1980), is Alleyn’s sole silkscreen print.

A key event in Alleyn’s late artistic development was his purchase of a summer cottage on Lake Memphremagog, Quebec, in 1977. It was this landscape that provided the inspiration for the aforementioned works, as well as many that would come after – and not only the scenery itself, but the images of it that came with the cottage. Alleyn bought the property fully furnished, which included the snapshots and slides left behind by the previous owners. These became fodder for his own work, which accounts for the disquietingly impersonal atmosphere of these images: though clearly tied up with representations of time and questions of memory, they are not based on Alleyn’s own memories.

Edmund Alleyn, "L'invitation au voyage," 1989-90.

Edmund Alleyn, “L’invitation au voyage,” 1989-90. Collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

What is perhaps most interesting about Alleyn’s ‘80s output is that he was returning to large-scale painting at the same time as the stand-off between Neo-Expressionist painting and the mostly photo-based practices of Appropriation art was defining the international discourse around postmodernism. Clearly, Alleyn was utterly remote from either of these camps, though it is not hard to see something quintessentially postmodern in both the mood and the subject matter of these works.

In his insightful curatorial essay, Lanctôt locates Alleyn’s postmodernism by comparing his late paintings with Denys Arcand’s films of the 1980s. He focuses on The Decline of the American Empire (1986), which takes place largely in a lakeside cottage and concerns middle-aged members of the Quebec intelligentsia who are critical of the idealism of their youth and indulging in private (mostly sexual) pleasures. The film’s current of disillusion and retreat finds a strong echo in Alleyn’s paintings, especially ones like The Edge of Silence (1988), a deserted tennis court plunged in deep purple, or Towards Amnesia (1988), a twilit landscape compressed to an extremely narrow band of an otherwise black canvas, suggestive of the widescreen blocking of a film frame or the narrowing of a lens. Most of these paintings evoke a world de-realized by the blue glow of a television, experienced nocturnally and alone.

While Arcand’s film was a major hit, however, Alleyn’s Indigo paintings, despite being the artist’s strongest and most fully-realized works as painting, were rarely seen. He showed none of them until the series was finished and finally exhibited altogether in 1990, in small shows at a Montreal Maison de Culture and New York’s 49th Parallel Gallery. The year after, he retired from teaching.

Though prolific for the rest of his life, Alleyn’s paintings of the ‘90s and early 2000s are, to my eyes, at least, less strikingly original than his work from the mid-‘60s to the late ‘80s. As he continued to focus on unpopulated landscapes, interiors, and still-lifes – such as his final Éphémérides series, which depicts collections of objects floating in black space, cancelled by overlaid brushstrokes – Alleyn’s visual language became more steeped in personal symbology. His style became slightly caricatured, even cartoonish: a quiet, somewhat mannerist Surrealism. Though still distinctive, these paintings lose the productive tension between social forces, the pressures of mass-media image culture, and the artistic gesture, lapsing into the complacency of painting as an unchallenged default: in effect, returning to the cultural condition, if not the style, of his very earliest works.

Edmund Alleyn, “Tout est bien qui fini mal,’’ 1999. Estate of Edmund Alleyn.

Edmund Alleyn, “Tout est bien qui fini mal,’’ 1999. Estate of Edmund Alleyn.

If Alleyn’s art could be summed up by these bookend periods of his career, he would hardly deserve the retrospective that the MAC has granted him. However the rich, complex, and often perplexing work of his middle period poses a real challenge to received history and offers the pleasure of something genuinely unexpected. At a time when artists are more subject than ever to the pressures of both promoting a personal brand and choosing among a seemingly infinite range of stylistic options, Alleyn presents an example of rejecting the constraints of a signature style without lapsing into the arbitrary. Each of his shifts was a profound re-evaluation of who he was as an individual and an artist in relation to his society and historical moment.

This dogged refusal of conventional self-promotion no doubt owed much to Alleyn’s formation in the high existentialism of postwar abstract art – a factor that also contributed to his rejection of the conceptualist paradigm, which he regarded as inauthentic. On this count, Alleyn remains out of step with the ethos of much conemporary art, but, as Giorgio Agamben writes, those who are most contemporary with their own time neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. Alleyn’s perpetual struggle with the prevailing currents of his day is precisely what makes his work exhilarating now.

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