This oil on canvas by Jean McEwen is the perfect embodiment of the opulence of materials and formal metamorphosis that occurred in the period of 1963 and 1964. This “controlled exuberance,” as Constance Naubert-Riser terms it, introduces coloured fields that undergo a rigorous, serial spatial organization that enables McEwen to explore the full potential of colour and spatial dynamics. In Les contes arabes nº 2, dated 1964, as in his Icône series (1963) and Le drapeau inconnu (1964), the cruciform structure dominates; it reveals a filigree framework, that of the frame of the painting with its crosspiece of wood and its four corners. Saffron yellow, mustard, and ochre pigment simulate the richness of gold, sealed and layered under an iridescent paste that contrasts with the cradle of the painting, itself immersed in burnished, glazed, fossilized shadows. The azure breaking through in the four corners of the painting emit strands of light and recall the painting’s source and the fantastic tales that it gives birth to. An inexhaustible beauty.
Jean McEwen is considered one of the most influential Canadian artists of his generation. His works have been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and New York. In 1973, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal presented a retrospective of his work, followed by Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in 1987. McEwen received several awards and distinctions during his career, most notably the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award from the Canada Council for the Arts, in 1977, and the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas, in 1998. A self-taught artist, Jean McEwen quickly abandoned the paintbrush and palette knife in favour of his own technique, using only his fingers. His images were heavily stratified—up to a dozen layers per painting—eventually realized in a dense, multi-coloured base in close dialogue with the pigments below. Identified for this reason with the Néo-plasticiens, McEwen drew inspiration from the aesthetic currents in American art at the time—Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting—freely appropriating them as he continued to explore the duality of colour and structure. The introduction of colour fields, which he subjected to a rigorous, sequential spatial ordering, allowed him to explore the full potential of colour and surfacedepth dynamics.