Change to Spare: Edmund Alleyn at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

Edmund Alleyn, Fête aux lanternes chez les Sioux, peuple pacifique, 1964, oil on canvas, 154.7 x 195 cm. Collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Gift of Pierre Roy

In my studio, I am many. Seldom has the name of an exhibition been so apt. Showcasing the artist’s wide-ranging styles and interests, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal’s (MAC) retrospective of renowned Canadian artist Edmund Alleyn (1931–2004) features nearly 50 works, including paintings, drawings, films, and installations.

In an era when artists worry about having a “brand” — in other words, establishing an identifiable style — Alleyn’s penchant for change and experimentation seems almost radical. Sometimes in the zeitgeist, and sometimes against the grain, Alleyn embraced a stunning variety of artistic ideas: abstraction, realism, First Nations motifs, experimental film, multimedia installations — you name it.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, given how much societal change he saw in his lifetime. Born in 1931 in Quebec City, Alleyn moved in 1955 to Paris, where he had a front-row seat to the turbulent politics of the 1960s. When he returned home, settling in Montreal in 1971, he found Quebec undergoing its own immense changes in the wake of the Quiet Revolution of the late 1960s, and the October Crisis of 1970. A man of his times, Alleyn created “brilliant and thoughtful art that is now recognized as one of the most important passages in Québec’s aesthetic history,” says John Zeppetelli, Director and Chief Curator of the MACM. 

Edmund Alleyn, La Crevasse, 1960, oil on canvas, 131 x 106 cm. Private collection

The exhibition begins with Alleyn’s Paris-era abstract paintings from the late 1950s and early 60s — including Jacques Cartier Arriving in Quebec Sees Indians for the First Time in his Life (1963), which is on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (as is a later piece, Anatomy of a Sigh [1999]). In the early work featured in the exhibition’s first room, Alleyn seems to be looking inward for inspiration. 

The art in the second room is so different, however, that visitors may find themselves checking the labels, thinking they’ve wandered into another artist’s exhibition. By the late 1960s, Alleyn had moved away from introspective abstraction into a Sputnik world of TV screens and electrical circuits, all depicted in crisp graphic images. Instead of visions coming from inside his head, they now came from the outside world — as in the video installation ALIAS (1969), which shows horrific images from TV news that have now become part of our collective visual memories.

Edmund Alleyn, Introscaphe, 1968–70, wood, fibreglass, paint, electric and electronic circuits, projection system and other materials, 155 x 365 x 105 cm. Collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Gift of Jennifer Alleyn

In the centre of the room is Introscaphe, a large egg-shaped installation like something out of the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper. The idea is to crawl inside (not that you can actually do this in the exhibition) to shut out the real world and watch an experimental film. Exhibition staff have placed Introscaphe where visitors still hear the unpleasant din of the TV news horrors coming from the ALIAS video: a clever way to imply the struggle between the inner and outer worlds for our attention. 

Other works on display show Alleyn playing with the artistic zeitgeist of his times, as in his Warhol-esque series Femmes dans la foule (1972). Like Warhol’s Flowers, it’s a series of the same image again and again in a variety of colours. In another room, Alleyn places plexiglass images of people in front of painted backgrounds that riff off both fine art icons and kitschy postcard images, creating a sense of three dimensions out of only two.

In my studio, I am many is an exhibition that must be viewed through 2016 eyes. I think that the work of Edmund Alleyn, even though some of it is fifty years old, speaks to a very current time. As an artist, he was already engaged in a dialogue with the future. The technological pieces, for instance, are fully in tune with the world around us today,” says Alleyn’s daughter, filmmaker Jennifer Alleyn, whose tribute to her father, l’Atelier de mon pére, is also showing at the museum.

Edmund Alleyn, Femme dans la foule (8), around 1972, acrylic on canvas transferred to cardboard, 50,5 x 40,5 cm. Estate of Edmund Alleyn

In the final rooms in the exhibition, it’s not surprising to see that Alleyn’s style had changed again by the late 1990s. He returns to painting with large, moody canvases of surrealistic rooms, boats, and even a tennis court that straddles the line between abstract and figurative painting. In his own career, Alleyn was never afraid to cross that line.

In many ways, Alleyn’s artistic trajectory mirrors that of modern Quebec in its eagerness to embrace change, question the status quo, and risk trying something new. And, in his studio, Alleyn was able to look inside himself — without ever taking his eye off the wider world outside.

Edmund Alleyn: In my studio, I am many is on view at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal until September 25, 2016. 

About the Author