Painting is a journey and journeys are always more interesting when there are unexpected detours, when the journey itself and not the destination is the goal. Margaret Glew
Margaret Glew’s recent work highlights an element that has long been key to her Painting practice. That element is her use of collage and with her current “detours”, she embraces its possibilities beyond Paintings on canvas or wood panel to create, Quilted Textiles, Sculpture and, in particular, Assemblage. In exploring new formulations of collage in her work using both two and three dimensions, she develops and recontextualizes her exploration of Painting as a mode of meaningful and imaginative thinking through abstract language.
Before exploring Margaret Glew’s particular use of collage in the paintings and indeed across her “detours”, it is perhaps useful to recognize that, in a multitude of ways, collage has played a seminal role in art since 1912, when, in what would become known as Synthetic Cubism, Picasso and Braque created the first Papier Collés. In pasting found objects, literal elements such as wallpapers, newsprint, and sheet-music into these works, Picasso and Braque signified that art and real life could be entwined beyond illusionistic depiction.
It is difficult to overestimate the art historical importance of their “invention” of collage. It seeded a revolution, a trajectory of influence that, entwining with the legacy of Dada and Duchampian ideas of the “readymade”, saw Painting eventually burst beyond its previous parameters, its literal and metaphorical frame, giving rise to our current post-medium condition. Under this idea of the post-medium condition, serious art genres can range from assemblage to installation, to conceptual and performance art, all operating alongside Painting, Drawing and Sculpture.
Indeed, to be a serious painter in the 21st century is to operate within a climate of plurality – even within the genre itself – where there is no dominant mode, movement, approach, or style, no commonly agreed ideological, political, or ontological, understanding. Our perception of the contemporary world itself can feel metaphorically collagistic. In the postmodernist sense of a world with no overarching metanarrative, the human subject can seem lost in a hurly burly of competing images, interests and ideologies, culture often appearing rudderless, transient and without meaning. For many contemporary artists, the cacophony of our contemporary world foregrounds a need for a renewed sense of authenticity and autonomy for art. Unbeholden to previously fashionable poststructualist theory, Painting is again for many, the well and the means of reclaiming that meaningful subjectivity, that janus-like exploration of expression through understanding and understanding through expression.
Fully cognizant of our contemporary moment, Margaret Glew creates works of consummate power and indeed beauty – yes beauty, that reference point of Walter Pater yet, here in her work, perhaps more aptly expressed as a contemporary configuration that recognizes complexity and contradiction. Living as the artist does, in downtown Toronto close to the Lake, there are tenable allusions to the urban fabric, to topography, to nature, climate – change and the everchanging conditions of weather. Yet these allusions are never specific, never depicted: rather, they are echoed and given form through an alchemy of the artist’s imaginative and expressive process, the arrangement, placing, orchestration, composition and creation of the abstract formal elements. Her shapes, lines, compositional, textural and colour relationships – both painted and collaged – create symphonic layered abstract languages which resonate across the canvas.
As an abstract painter, Margaret Glew eschews overt or pre – determined imagery in her utilization of collage (other than abstract motifs in the case of the quilts ). Her basic collage materials in the paintings comprise a deliberately restricted palette largely of paper and cardboard ( both ribbed and smooth ). These materials are of course quotidian products of our contemporary society – packaging elements, commercial papers – however they are selected without signifying images or marks, or any kind of intrinsic commercial graphic motif. Whether used as found surface, or pre – treated through paint, drawing or other mark making, they are integrated into each painting.
Her work has a magisterial quality that was a feature of much abstract expressionism of the New York School. It is a very long way away from the essentialist abstract formalism centred on medium specificity that American critic Clement Greenberg advocated in the 1960s. Rather, her sensibility, her procedures, have an ancestry that relates to the New York School – era Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell, to their expansive modes of creation that embraced the outside world. Robert Motherwell was an early North American advocate of collage: influenced by Picasso and Dada collagists such as Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber Arp with their use of chance and arbitrary placement, his mature paintings retained an aura of collage in their handling.
In Margaret Glew’s paintings, similarly, there is a sense of collage in the paint handling – even in those areas or paintings where collage is not a feature. These elements exist as themselves – brushstrokes, collaged paper, spray – painted lines, the collaged lines formed by torn paper, cardboard – and at the same time, they are part of a push – pull, an occluding, a revealing, a relational ambiguity, between the physical, embodied texture, the figure, the ground and the suggestive hint of imagery. It is in this exquisitely balanced instability, this shifting sands of recognition and relation that embodies, an aliveness of surface, process and subject, giving an indefinable power to the work. I am reminded of the Zone, the landscape of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film masterpiece, Stalker.
Guided by the eponymous Stalker, two protagonists navigate the mysterious Zone, in search of a mysterious room where they believe all their questions about life will receive answers and understanding, The landscape is constantly shifting – in a sense it is “alive”. To navigate safely, the Stalker, periodically throws a weighted canvas bag to indicate a safe way ahead. The fluid and shifting figure / ground relationships in Margaret Glew’s paintings embody a comparable yet exquisite complexity, ostensibly in search of a sublime indefinable goal, in which, as she states in her “detours” quotation above: the journey itself and not the destination is the goal.
For Margaret Glew, that journey – Painting itself, imagination, discovery – can speak in many registers. As in the paintings, the collage of her assemblage works and quilted textiles, eschews semiotic reference. Picasso and Braque’s collaging of wallpaper, sheet music, newsprint and labels in their 1912 Papier Collé works depended on semiotic recognition in the collaged elements. They then used irony and paradox, playing games with literalism and illusion to question reality. Conversely, collage for Margaret Glew, utilizes interactions of shape, treatment, context, and process to provide meaning.
In the assemblage works, cardboard as a material occupies a support and surface role. Smooth and ribbed, untreated, laminated, painted (both flat and expressively), the cardboard is cut, shaped and orchestrated with often overlapping structure. Enabled by the process, and freed from the containment of stretched canvas, the cardboard elements articulate an edge that is an organic consequence of their internal compositional logic. In each assemblage work, the cutting and the shape – making of the cardboard is foregrounded and the painted and drawn mark – making is often, by definition, edited by this decoupage. In terms of allusion, this results in a more specifically architectonic feel. Nevertheless, whether by brushed or spray paint or drawing, mark – making asserts itself in these works in often exquisite counterpoint to the shaped cardboard.
Shape and its infinite formations are a key element in all of Margaret Glew’s work. The nature of quilt-making – the sewing together of the separate elements – necessitates a slower less spontaneous process and this condition of the medium tends to highlight shape.
In her quilts, whilst allowing the structural need for fabric backing support to determine a rectilinear outer form, she creates compelling contrapuntal interplays between that orthogonal parameter and curved or organic shapes and lines. Then within this strategy she takes great joy in further compositional complexity, playing abstract pattern, striped and plain colour fabrics against each other. The stripes and abstract pattern of these fabrics to some degree operate as a equivalent of painted or drawn marks and here Glew goes further and has begun to combine significant painting and collaged fabric processes. The extension of all of these areas of practice into freestanding cardboard and paint sculptures constitutes, at the time of writing, a tiny part of her oeuvre. Nevertheless, as Picasso’s rough cubist cardboard reliefs of 1912 demonstrated, exploratory sculptures can play a significant and seminal role in the development of an artist’s future Painting practice.
Margaret Glew’s practice operates at the highest level of ambition for Painting as a serious art form. I use here, a determination of Painting, that encompasses its practice and its discourse across the range and diversity of its multiple histories, and the expansion of its parameters in the 20th century. The dialectic between what we might describe as the inner characteristics of Painting and reference to, or inclusion of, the outside world, remains key. Mediated by the subjective vision of the artist, these two characteristics, for Margaret Glew, are sublimated into a practice that demonstrates the power of expressive, imaginative thinking in and through Painting. This is an art of immense achievement and possibility.
Geoffrey Nawn October 2021
© Copyright: Photographs, Margaret Glew. All rights reseserved.
© Copyright: Writing Geoffrey Nawn. All rights reserved.