Aotearoa New Zealand, October 2022
The Touring Exhibition Freed Up in Lockdown comprises 15 paintings selected from an intensive period of Ewan McDougall’s mahi from March 2020, i.e., the first Covid lockdown, through to March, 2023.
The Wellington show is on for the month of October in The Light Room, Academy Galleries 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington.
In Feb 3, 2023, the exhibition opens in the Percy Thomson Gallery in Taranaki.
The painter notes: I could have chosen 40 paintings, but this show fitted together as an organic whole. Not all paintings refer directly to the pandemic, but they do owe their existence to those long hours of immersion in vibrant oil colour and the act of uninterrupted painting.
Struggle and bliss.
Curator – Art, Ashburton Art Gallery
Dunedin artist Ewan McDougall’s paintings barely seem to contain their impishly joyous energy. Their subject matter exploded from his mind onto the canvas after he resumed painting in the late 1980s, and tell stories of unlikely situations, impossible encounters and otherworldly environments. These disparate locations – night-time forests, the ocean, the Altamira cave in Spain, or what looks like the surface of another planet – are where all kinds of frivolity play out. The figures that populate them dance about in wild abandon to a soundtrack only they can hear. These works fizz with colour and movement – it’s telling that in a previous life, McDougall was drummer for a psychedelic rock band named Kaleidoscope.
McDougall describes himself as an expressionist artist, influenced by the likes of Karel Appel and the German expressionists, but also the Old Masters. References to art history, literature, mythology and music abound in his hyperglycemic canvases. The work of expressionist forebears, cave painting, Rhythm and Blues songs, Greek mythology and Biblical kings are all grist for the mill as subject matter for these paintings. There are also affinities with the street art-informed work of Jean Michel Basquiat with his gurning, cockeyed characters, as well as the unmoored souls that haunt many works of art brut.
The French art critic Élie Faure once said of the expressionist painter Chaïm Soutine, that in his work a “human face, clothing, landscape, still life—gives off a profound heat…” The same might be said for McDougall’s work, but the heat these frenetic compositions radiate is caused by microwave radiation that has oscillated their cells, heating them from within. It has been noted that his work, executed in thick impasto oil paint, owe something of their visceral nature to his experiences working in freezing works during his youth[i]. It bears mentioning that one of Soutine’s infamous series of works were his studies of beef carcasses in bright impasto.
Curds of brain matter erupting from the tops of manic heads with rictus grins; a radioactively glowing green crowd with arms raised aloft in celebration, their fingers like the tines of pitchforks raking the sky overhead; the white pustules afflicting the body of a humanoid that do not seem to cause distress – the figure seeming to perversely relish its condition; the people and animals of the paintings in Freed up in Lockdown continue their misadventures in the manner of McDougall’s previous work, featuring unhinged characters in all sorts of situations.
A direct reference to the pandemic, the painting Love in the Time of Covid is a play on the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 novel Love in the Time of Colera. A Martian-like landscape, or perhaps the Australian outback at night, is the setting for a cast of strange beings of all different colours, shapes and sizes jumping, prancing, balanced atop one another, or laying down. It’s a parallel universe where the rhythm of life has deferred to the bizarre experience that is ‘sheltering in place’. Here though, the mood is jovial – these characters aren’t perturbed by being stuck in extended lockdown, but they do need to expend some pent up energy.
However, if there is one painting in this exhibition that exemplifies the mood of the last couple of years, it is perhaps The Same Boat. A group of figures, their features scraped out of thick yellow paint, are huddled together, arms raised above their heads while all stranded in a green tub of a boat adrift in a dark purple sea. Some are silently screaming, while others have anxious grimaces locked on their faces. It seems that they’ve found themselves in a Raft of the Medusa type predicament, but instead of the hopeless scenario that Théodore Géricault’s painting depicts, there is a tragi-comic element to these absurd jaundiced creatures struggling to figure out just how they’ve landed themselves in this situation. During the COVID-19 lockdowns everyone was ostensibly ‘in the same boat’ but how this played out in daily life was very different for different sections of society. For McDougall, as the title of this exhibition suggests, it was a period where constraints were paradoxically liberating, and they allowed him unhindered time to focus on his painting.
[i] David Eggleton, ‘Break On Through – Recent Paintings by Ewan McDougall.’ Art New Zealand, number 108, Spring 2003, p.84.
Ewan McDougall is a Dunedin painter who has been exhibiting for 30 years. He has had 100 solo exhibitions, has shown in five NZ Public Galleries and also exhibited in London, NYC, Sydney, St Ives, Cremona and Valencia. He is a prize winner or Finalist in prominent NZ Art Awards and has paintings in many Public Collections. He prizes spontaneity, colour, vibrant primitive figures and a lashings of irony.
James Hope is Curator – Art at the Ashburton Art Gallery and Museum. He was formerly Assistant Curator at the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui and has written for publications such as Art New Zealand, HAMSTER, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waitwhetū’s Bulletin, and Writing Around Sound, published by the Canterbury Society of Sonic Artists.