Christian McLeod, Painter

Essay by Craig Scott (February 2008)

The first thing that struck me about Christian McLeod’s works when I went to view them in his studio in late 2006 was how his canvases shimmer on the wall. At this first-impressions level, Gary Michael Dault phrased it very well when he characterizes a McLeod work as “entirely enjoyable as pigmented energy for its own sake.” * But, with a little more viewing, one realizes how much more complex is the sense of movement in McLeod’s work than simply that created by the “rapturous, convulsive … untrammeled paint-handling” and “irrational joys” (again, Dault) of the surface turmoil of a McLeod painting. Rather, the surface energy that his remarkable sense of balance of colour and actually creates is that of an energy in equipoise, which leads the patient viewer to a second-stage feeling of calm and realization that the work has quieted down. But there is more – much more. A pulsing movement remains, and another realization suddenly dawns on the viewer, namely that, almost paradoxically (for paintings with so much surface energy), it is actually a movement under the surface that gives many of his works their special quality. With time, on reading Dault’s essay on McLeod’s work, I came to understand that this quality is one manifestation of the creative tension in McLeod’s works between abstract expressionist feeling and a just-barely-discernible narrative element – a quality Gary Michael Dault commented on with great respect, not least for the risk-taking involved in creating such works. It is as if the story or commitment or concern that motivates McLeod as he paints is constantly striving to burst through the surface, to make itself heard above the glorious roar of the sea of colour and contour that marks many of McLeod’s works.

Christian McLeod is a painter who is completely secure in his own skin, not duped by art-world fetishizing of the new and confusing of the new with the important. He is aware of his forebearers, including a particular call on his soul of both the Canadian landscape tradition, the Canadian (perhaps primarily Québécois) abstract tradition, and also Aboriginal traditions. In any given work, he may be in conversation with Canadian artistic ancestors like a Riopelle (e.g. Transformer”), a Borduas (so brilliantly echoed while arguably being surpassed in McLeod’s “Particles” series paintings), a Thompson, a Morriseau, or a Jackson. But his influences cannot but be – and are – global: as noted by Dault, one can in some pieces discern echoes of New York or Paris ‘School’ adherents like Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, da Silva or de Stael; or, for that matter, discern the spirit of van Gogh (e.g. Burning Studio) or of ancient cave paintings of (as commented on by Martin Mills in relation to the work Breaking Apart

McLeod has a particular talent for colour manipulation. There is much that one could say, but I shall mention only a few dimensions. For one thing, his dense, often churning, surfaces are never muddy or aimlessly busy. There is also what I might call, in some instances, the ‘daub juste’ and, in other instances, the ‘flow juste.’ By these I mean an uncanny ability to place highlights or zones or textured streaks of colour in a way that both teases the eye, moving it around the canvas, and (often) signals a more representational element in his work that encourages the viewer to engage with the work’s title and implicit (if still at times obscure) theme.

In comments such as I have just made, one can over-emphasize the McLeod works that are simultaneously heavily worked and brilliantly coloured. There are other works marked by swathes of a single colour on a white background (notably the “Particles” series) or where the field is dominated by wide expanses of a single vibrant colour (notably, the experimental “Unmanned” that marks a new McLeod stream, but also “Platforms”). It is in such works that his remarkable talent for surface equipoise and for placement of isolated but inter-related colour fields are most immediately and obviously evident.