Multidisciplinary, post-Plasticien artist Charles Gagnon worked in a variety of disciplines throughout his career, but painting remained a constant in his practice and a favoured medium. Deeply inspired by his extended stay in New York, Gagnon’s work has certain affinities with Abstract Expressionism, the influences of which extend from De Kooning to Alfred Leslie, by way of Rauschenberg’s collages and constructions. Big Freeze / Le grand gel is part of Gagnon’s Gap Paintings series, off-centre compositions that he revisited in 1962, in which, as Philip Fry notes, the “predominant green, white, and grey mixed with brown and blue are composed of rectangular elements that are juxtaposed, joined, overlapped, or arranged so that their sides are parallel to the frame.”1 This painting maintains the incidental use of collage, an allusion to the series Boîtes and Paysages Collages. A piece of green packaging in the upper left-corner of the painting, on which is written “Refusez les imitations” (Accept no substitutes), is also found in Boîte #6‑La Fenêtre, an assemblage made the same year. The winter landscape suggested by the title most certainly guided the construction and composition of the work, in which the window/mirror pierces a pictorial space engulfed by flows and splashes. If Gagnon is “an abstract painter,” Roald Nasgaard writes, “he has always remained close to nature and has never really abandoned the landscape, as notions of spatial passage and obstruction were constant themes in his work.”
Looser than La Trouée (1962–63) and as dynamic as Southern (1963), Big Freeze / Le grand gel is composed around a system of T-shaped coloured planes and zigzags, through which pictorial layers move freely either in front of or behind the edges of the predominant rectangle – an analogy to the window that both contains and excludes the landscape. As a site of transitions, signs, and winding traces, the pictorial space is like a trap filled with misleading reflections and secret exits. Each brushstroke generates an open response to plasticity, a new definition of painting. Fry further notes, “As a result, the space seems to move, to open and rebuild itself as the eye finds its landmarks.” Thus, the painting becomes a tour de force charged with the artist’s undeniable photographic vision that forever tracks and frames its material subject.
Charles Gagnon was born in Montreal in 1934. He completed his studies in the U.S. between 1955 and 1959 at the New York Institute of Photography and the New School of Interior Design. Gagnon became known as much abroad as in Canada through his participation in important exhibitions, such as ART: USA: 58, at Madison Square Gardens in New York; in the early 1960s at the Galerie Denyse Delrue, in Montreal; and the Deuxième Biennale de Paris at the Musée d’art modern. Following these successes were photographic exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in 1971, and at New York’s International Center of Photography, in 1983. Gagnon taught at Concordia University in Montreal (1967–75) and at the University of Ottawa (1975–96). He received the Banff School of Fine Arts Prize (1981), the Prix Paul‑Émile-Borduas (1995), the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2002), and the Jean Paul Riopelle Career Grant (2003). His work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, in 2001, two years before his death.