Edmund Alleyn has always been a bit of a conundrum. Investigating a variety of styles that spanned the non-representational to the sociological and realistic, his work retained an extraordinary continuity of mood and imagination. Like some members of Figuration Narrative (who he showed with), there is an interest in Pop Art but it seems to be a distant one. Alleyn left Canada early and spent several years in France before returning to Quebec. What he brought back with him was a degree of alienation – one that manages at turns to be detached and intimate – that provided him with a curious perspective. Much like his mentor and colleague Jean Paul Lemieux, he unites an eccentric integration of experimentation with a seemingly conservative and sentimental style and content.
Alleyn’s work is on display in two shows, one at the MACM at the other at Simon Blais. The latter focuses primarily on work from the 80s, the former offers a large retrospective. The museum’s wallcards cast his early work as introspective and cut off from the outside world. This was the work he made in France. Mostly abstracts in dark colours with some of his indigos creeping in. They are dull, the gestures a bit desperate and vaguely architectonic without stressing out on the question of design. They aren’t decorative but spatial sketching that never quite comes off. These are set against his series of painting inspired by First Nations art, specifically from the West Coast, that he made while still in Europe. High on the imaginary, far more playful, they have an exuberance that isn’t forced but misdirected.
These two tendencies of his early work – the exuberant and the broadly architectural – find themselves significantly reformulated in the mid-sixties. His work becomes sleek, highly designed, clean, and reflecting the technocratic obsessiveness of the Trudeau era with a verve that is both enthusiastic and caustic. His return to Quebec, cast in the notes for the exhibition as an anthropological shift in his imagination, is striking and strange. Arguably, the anthropological twist came with his First Nations inspired art, now turned to a culture that was also alien to him – post-Duplessis Quebec.
There is a nightmarish sci-fi side to much of this period, one that feels distinctly dated, like the metro stations built in Montreal around the same time – half ebullient homage to the optimism of the period, the other half shadowed by its Gothic infused Brutalism. In Alleyn, the showing off of materiality so crucial to Brutalism, and to the abstraction that he walked away from, is gone, replaced by crystallized imagery. A different kind of brutality in his work comes through in the paintings: stripped down, reminiscent of industrial diagrams with their simplified figures and occasional fluorescent paint, their colouring an uneasy fusion of the cold and warm, like one finds in some of Cronenberg’s films. They depict the smashing together of bodies and circuitry; a dark recasting of McLuhanism with the word play stripped out. They are sometimes interactive and include collages of moving images and sound. The Big Sleep (1968) includes a video montage of stressful images on a small screen while flashing lights pop on around a giant brain.
The cool and dark visual aspect of this work, balanced by the jarring use of sound, then takes a rather strange turn. Embracing the splintering of the body by technology, Alleyn produces a strange egg-like structure called the Introscaphe. Designed as an immersive environment, the egg is reminiscent of trends in Scandinavian architecture like the work of Matti Suuronen. It’s sort of a reverse sensory-deprivation tank where the user is overloaded with images, sounds and sensations. Though intended for the general market, it never made it there. Now long dysfunctional, it stands as a monument to failed utopian aspirations and highlights, though perhaps I am projecting, the sombre and depressive tendencies that percolate in his work, both in terms of his colours and persistent, listless nostalgia.
This utopian element developed around the same time that he painted a series of large crowd portraits on plexiglass. Based on photos he took regularly while hanging out around the La Ronde area, the images of Quebecois out in their finest leisure wear have a strange humour to them that a more cynical person might find caustic. Prosaic in both their design and sense of detail, they effectively capture the strangeness of the banal and situate it in a deliberately alien way. Life-sized and flattened, with simplified features, faces sometimes occluded, they are erected before paintings of tourist sunsets and a Mondrian painting, marrying the two great cultural cliches concerning the aesthetic experience of nature. They are remarkably similar to some Michelangelo Pistoletto paintings being done in the previous decade. The Italian’s paintings, however, were on mirrors, actively incorporating the space surrounding them and the transient position of the viewer into their visual field. Alleyn’s paintings by contrast do not centralize the spectator, incorporate them into the art or seek to unite image and life. Instead, whatever his intentions might be, they suggest a certain distance. There is, it seems to me, a significant difference between looking through glass and looking in a mirror. The mirror after all also conjures both the Baroque and the memento mori; there is a very specific drama of subjectivity being played out in Pistoletto. It would be too crude to suggest that Alleyn is being objective by contrast, but there is less a desire for inclusive unification than for dissecting, flattening and separating layers. The Quebecois’ interest in the scientific and technological is being relayed from the earlier works here, albeit with more playful glee as Mondrian is brought in by parody and his abstraction supplanted by a strange new form of landscape art that includes genre, portrait, painting and sculpture.
This play of forms continued as the decades passed with his Mythologiques quotidiens or Éphémérides, inspired by the imagery of slow motion exploding objects in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, they collect the ephemera of the world, setting them out in nearly blank fields and allow them to float or cross them out. But these images of objects let loose from their striation in historical time are not so different from the other tendency that became dominant in the latter half of his career.
While the MACM show contains several works from this period, Galerie Simon Blais offered substantially more in an exhibit running at the same time. The work in the 80s continues his stripped down colour scheme, usually limiting his palette to a triad of basic hues. There is a distinctive use of negative space where the primary pictorial focus is weighted toward the bottom half of the frame, a move which is only accentuated by the dominant use of the horizontal in these works. Generally, he works on frames within frames, one image set upon another, as if in an elaborate photo book. These images are often set slightly off-centre. Sometimes they appear in lines that sets up a cinematic quality. This combination of elements makes his work eerily reminiscent of much of Jack Chambers’ output, with its comparable fascination with reduced colour and photography’s relationship to painting. But unlike Chambers, there is something darker, more somber to Alleyn. His images suggest both reverie and elliptical narratives, removed from public events, literally set upon islands. Seemingly mocking any attempt to piece together these images of furniture, nude bodies and snapshots, he sets these scenarios up in line with eerily mysterious images of empty tennis courts superimposed with bodies of water, returning to the themes of abstract order and landscape that had percolated through the paintings of the 70s. Finally, there is a play between these two bodies: water and human. The rendering of shadows around his figures is usually rough, occasionally discontinuous. There is a sense in which the body appears as an interruption of shadow. The generality of its design, the almost coarse and undeveloped rendering of feet compared to the articulations of the spinal cord, is exaggerated by the way in which he seems to be painting shadows and light on bodies more than the bodies themselves. They have a remarkable sense of flatness that gives them a hallucinatory quality, much as the rendering of what captures its ephemeral singularity in a moment of transient ripples.
The MACM exhibition runs a clear line from his early career until late. These are separated off room to room and united by a consistently blank wallspace. The distinctly institutional feeling of the show, exaggerated to some degree by Alleyn’s penchant for creating work that strains such limits, also features a little, dim side room that includes some of his sketches, source photos and other paraphernalia. These sort of personal alcove archives tend to pop up in retrospectives lately. It’s a strange touch. I can never help wondering whether this type of inclusion does more or less for the work. Marginalized like a footnote, its didactic purpose is largely underdeveloped. Considering the artist’s interest in such miniature eruptions, this might have been explored to greater effect.