Recently INSTUDIO asked John McEwen, one of Canada’s foremost sculptors, to identify what, in his view, makes good public art. McEwen, who is a 1970 graduate of the Sculpture program, is certainly no stranger to outdoor commissions. Here are some of his thoughts on their making and merits.
For me, the most significant component of good public art is that the principles that form it are overlapping and interrelated. By the time one arrives at art school one has probably been given the cards (no matter how invisible) that will play out over the course of one’s life. However, with a deck of 56 cards comprising four different suits, the hands dealt will be highly mutable. The images presented here, which fall roughly into four chronological parts, demonstrate both the development and mutability of my public work in terms of that rough chronology.
On good public art: four interrelated and overlapping principles
- Good public art is a journey. Good public art occurs over time, bringing together an artist, an audience and a public space. The entry of the public and the public space alter one’s life as an artist. When good public art occurs a kind of third person can emerge, combining both artist and spectator.
- Good public art is more than the sum of its parts. In joining artist, audience and public space, good public art becomes the link between the human imagination and the overlapping spaces we live in. My first link was animals and my second is stars.
- Good public art opens to the world. The steel slab animal that I have used since 1978 is both subject and object. Unlike the iconic relationship between the weathervane and the wind, neither spectator nor environment has sole causal power. As a sculpture, the steel slab animal remains mute and motionless. But as a subject it is alive and it looks where animals look. The animal that is represented is both there and not there. Two conclusions result: first, the life of the world is independent of the human psyche; and second, in good public art we are more active participant than passive observer.
- Good public art recognizes the strange kinship among all living things. If the steel slab animal both evokes and protects the parallel universe of animal life, then the same animal in stars evokes the shared embodiment of all living things — as a measure that undermines any neat dichotomy between humans and animals. We are more fold than rock, in the larger melody of life.
Part One: The Minimal Steel Animal
John McEwen, Boat Sight, 1984, Parc des Portageurs
Boat Sight overlooks the Ottawa River and The Chaudière Falls and consists of three components: the loping silhouette of a wolf, a guard dog, and the outlined frame of a boat. The river rushing towards the falls ‘erodes’ the perfect circular site of rock and paving brick; the active viewer passes through the boat but stands alongside both dog and wolf.
Part Two: The Commemorative Works
John McEwen, Victory / Peace, 1995, Toronto
Victory / Peace commemorates the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, celebrating the contributions of Canadians who served both overseas and at home by setting up an axis that runs from an outbound gate that faces the water, to an inbound gate that faces inland. On the gate of departure marked SACRIFICE are the events of the war; on the gate of return, HOPE for the idea of Canada. At midpoint is a commemorative bronze medallion of fifty words for peace in fifty different languages.
John McEwen, The River as Thread / the Canoe as Needle, 2005, Canadian Embassy, Berlin
This bronze canoe hangs in the entrance passage of the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.
Inscribed in the bronze is Alexander Mackenzie's late eighteenth-century route across ‘Canada.’ This voyage (from Montreal in the east to the Beaufort Sea in 1789; and then, in 1793, to the Pacific Ocean) could only have been undertaken by canoe.
Part Three: Celestial Space and the Lexis of Stars
John McEwen, Search Light, Star Light, Spot Light, 1998, the Air Canada Centre,
Part Four: The Envelope of Stars
John McEwen, Ragged Ass Bear - 2009/The Miracle, 2015, Sherway Gardens, Toronto
At left: John McEwen, Ragged Ass Bear, 2009, Georgian Bay
Approached by water this bear is located on a Georgian Bay island of granite rock. Rock and bear are more than the sum of their parts. Viewers of this work, which is located on a granite-rock island in Georgian Bay, typically approach and enjoy it by water.
At right: The Miracle, 2015, Sherway Gardens, Toronto
John McEwen is represented by the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto.