Ray Mead: Living Within

Ray Mead: Living Within came together quickly as a result of a change in the RMG’s programming schedule. Whenever I go through the racks in the vault, Mead’s work begs for my attention so organizing this exhibition was an incredible pleasure.

Bringing together over thirty works by Mead that range from the 1940s to 1990 has solidified what I’ve always known: Ray Mead is a fabulous painter and a wonderful colourist. While it’s impossible to talk about favourites, I do have works that I’m drawn to more than others. One of these is Door. It’s a large (203 x 173 cm), post painterly oil on canvas work that was painted around 1961. Mead has spoken about his love of black: “black is a delightful colour—it has so many variations.” The blacks in Door have their own tonal variations: deeply saturated in parts, and less so in others. But it’s that orange—just visible beneath the circular element on the left and hugging the centre on the right margin that ties the work together for me.

In writing about Door, Mead says that metaphorically the work “was a door for me to pass into a new era of experimentation.” This fabulous painting has existed for over fifty years and still draws one in towards that new era.

Linda Jansma
Senior Curator
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery


Jock Macdonald: Evolving Form – A perpetual state of evolution

Vol ‘n’ Tell is an ongoing series of blog posts written by RMG Volunteers. Raechel Bonomo is an Oshawa native, art enthusiast and second-year Print Journalism student at Durham College.

There are not many rooms in Oshawa with totem poles, fish swimming through space, and rolling Canadian hills up on its walls. 

Evolving Form at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) is the first major retrospective of Macdonald’s work in more than 30 years. The exhibit gives a fresh look into his influential career as a Canadian artist. According to the exhibit’s curator Linda Jansma, the exhibit came together through a long process that began in spring 2011. “This exhibit traces the artistic transition [Macdonald] underwent,” says Jansma. “His career as an artist journeys in a perpetual state of evolution.”

In 2012, Jansma was in the process of writing a grant to receive funding from the Department of Heritage for the exhibit when she received an email from Jock’s nephew, Alistair Macdonald. During their correspondence, he notified Jansma about 40 letters written by his uncle stored in the Edinburgh Gallery’s archives. This was the missing piece to Jansma’s puzzle, she said. That fall, she took a five-day trip to Scotland to view the letters. The content of the letters led her to uncover the lost work of Macdonald. She explored the various styles and periods of Macdonald and brought back with her paintings, drawings and methods unseen before by Canadian audiences currently up at the gallery.

Macdonald was born in 1897 in Thurso, Scotland. After his time in the army, he studied design at the Edinburgh College of Art. Macdonald immigrated to Canada in 1926 to take up a teaching job as head of design at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts.  One of his greatest contributions is as a founding member of Toronto-based abstract group, Painters 11 formed in 1953.

In the early stages of his career, Canadian Group of Seven member Lawren Harris’s work inspired Macdonald to paint abstract landscapes. This influence is visible in his work In the White Forest, 1932. You can see in his work Drying Herring Roe, 1938 Macdonald was inspired by Canadian Aboriginal culture. The painting features large traditional totem poles and reserves. These pieces, among 91 other original works, are currently up in the RMG.

“Intuitively artists create within the structural forms of nature,” is a quote from Macdonald posted above his landscape works in the exhibit. There is a notable predominance of nature as his main influencer in the majority of his work. Jock always painted the fourth dimension of nature,” says Jansma. “It is how we’re suppose to feel about it, not how we see it.”

Even when Macdonald wasn’t painting landscapes this influence is evident throughout his career. More abstract style paintings such as Spring Awakening, 1936 represent a more nonliteral interpretation of nature. In his mid-career, Macdonald began to divert away from traditional ideals of art and began to explore modern concepts such as futurism and surrealism.

In the 1940s, Macdonald met British surrealist artists Dr. Grace W. Pailthorpe and Ruben Mednikoff. They taught Macdonald surrealist painting methods such as automatics, a technique that involves painting in quick-paced series, and dating work down to the very time it was created. During this time, Macdonald was diverting away from his traditional landscape work and started producing surrealist-style paintings.

“Never can you know how indebted I am to you both, the awakening and releasing of my inner consciousness,” wrote Macdonald in a letter to Pailthorpe and Mednikoff.

Vivid, colourful painting such as Fish Family, 1943 display Macdonald’s subconscious expressed on a canvas. This piece and other works from this period are included in the RMG exhibit to showcase the versatility and dimensions Macdonald was capable of as an artist. The exhibit does a superb job at collecting and representing various elements and the periods of Macdonald’s career.

Many art historians credit 1957 – 1960 as Macdonald’s pre-eminent years as a painter. He began exploring oil-based mediums such as Duco and Lucite industrial paints to produce abstract work such as Bearer of Gifts, 1952. You can see the transition as his work began to loosen up in 1958 with Clarion Call into the very fluid and almost whimsical Elemental Fury, 1960.

The RMG dedicated an entire gallery space to showcase the work from his final years as a painter. From 1957, he painted an average of 50 paintings per year until he died suddenly from a heart attack on Dec. 3, 1960. The work of Macdonald has and continues to influence Canadian and international artists. The RMG’s exhibit Evolving Form adequately demonstrates the versatility, aptitude and depth of Macdonald’s career.


Image: Jock Macdonald, Nature’s Pattern, 1954; Collection of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery

Curator’s View – Jock Macdonald

This blog post comes from the desk of Senior Curator, Linda Jansma.

It has been an exciting journey to be involved in the development of Jock Macdonald: Evolving Form. As the “spiritual home” of Painters Eleven, it was natural for the RMG to be part of this collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Many of the 26 works by Macdonald in the RMG’s permanent collection are featured in both the exhibition and publication, as are other paintings from major public holdings across the country, as well as from private collections.

The exhibition presents important new research: a previously unknown diary that Macdonald kept while he and his family lived in Nootka, a remote community on Vancouver Island, correspondence from Jock to British Surrealists Dr. Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, and a selection of 86 previously unknown works housed in the archives of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. The latter represents a link between Macdonald’s early forays into abstraction, and his fully realized automatic works and a number are included in the exhibition.

This wonderful photograph of Macdonald, taken at the opening of a Jack Bush exhibition in 1958 at Toronto’s Park Gallery, is also a recent discovery and a 2014 addition to the RMG’s important P11 archives. We are grateful to the Feheley family for their generous gift of this material.

Image – Jock Macdonald, 1958 Park Gallery Opening, Gift of the Feheley Family, 2014

Painters Eleven at Sixty

Tom Hodgson, Yellow Hydrant, 1953; oil, sand and acrylic ? on masonite; Gift of Martin Vagners, 1989

Tom Hodgson, Yellow Hydrant, 1953; oil, sand and acrylic ? on masonite; Gift of Martin Vagners, 1989

This post comes from our Senior Curator, Linda Jansma.

‘This exhibition is not a compact to agree, but rather the expression of a long repressed desire on the part of eleven painters to disagree harmoniously in terms visually indigenous to this age.’

While a fall 1953 meeting at Alexandra Luke’s cottage officially launched Painters Eleven as Ontario’s first abstract painting group, their inaugural exhibition took place at Roberts Gallery in Toronto from February 13 – 27, 1954. The above quote is taken from the exhibition flyer; indeed, the group wasn’t interested in presenting a manifesto similar to the Automatistes’ Refus Global, but in seeking opportunities to show their abstract work to the public.

Jock Macdonald, one of the oldest members of P11, would write in a letter to friends about that early exhibition: “It was the bombshell of the Art world in Toronto. It set the established and recognized artist on their ears.” Roberts Gallery had a huge attendance for the exhibition opening for which each member could contribute three paintings. As one Toronto Daily Star reporter noted: “The show has one common denominator: it gives conservatism a polite but firm kick in the pants and blazes independent trails.”

The RMG has organized an exhibition celebrating P11’s first sixty years and has included early work by each of its members. The gallery’s first mandate emphasized collecting and exhibiting the work of the group and the RMG now has the largest collection of work by Painter’s Eleven, as well as an extensive archive. Four paintings from that first exhibition are part of the RMG permanent collection, including Forest by Kazuo Nakamura, Yellow Hydrant by Tom Hodgson, and Tumult for a King by Harold Town (a Varsity reviewer remarked, about the latter painting, that it was “rather violent, too violent perhaps”).

Kazuo Nakamura, Forest; 1953; oil on masonite; Gift of Charles E. McFaddin, 1974

Kazuo Nakamura, Forest; 1953; oil on masonite; Gift of Charles E. McFaddin, 1974

In the invitation for the group’s second Roberts exhibition, they further clarified their aims:

‘There is no manifesto here for the times.
There is no jury but time. But now
There is little harmony in the noticeable disagreement.
But there is a profound regard
For the consequences
Of our complete freedom’

After sixty years, the jury is back, and the verdict, is no doubt, positive.

Harold Town; Tumult for a King; 1953- 54; oil and Lucite 44 on masonite; Gift of the artist's estate, 1994

Harold Town; Tumult for a King; 1953- 54; oil and Lucite 44 on masonite; Gift of the artist’s estate, 1994