Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), like Marc-Aurèle Fortin, was one of those elusive, underappreciated artists that albeit unquestionably part of the cultural fabric of Quebec, laboured largely on the periphery of contemporary trends of the day.

Alleyn, even more than the stylized Fortin, was and remains difficult to categorize. And that would be just fine with him, for this was a man of many interests and a restless, inquisitive mind. Art, he said, is “an itching of the spirit”, and in his long and versatile career, he tried to scratch each and every itch he could.

Alleyn was born in Quebec City in an Anglo-Irish community. He studied under the great Jean Paul Lemieux at the École des beaux-arts de Québec, before moving to Paris in 1955. He would remain there for the next fifteen years, and this lengthy sojourn outside of Canada is given as reason why his popularity here did not take off, as many feel it should have.

This nonconformist artist expressed his vision in a variety of mediums, often at odds with what was emerging, as in choosing figurative approach when abstraction was at its height, only to take it up as its appeal waned. While in Paris, Alleyn went through several creative periods, and together with his later production, the process is comprehensively laid out in this long-overdue retrospective.

The staging of the exhibition allows for a clear reading of Alleyn’s works, and the word ‘reading’ is used purposely. In all he did, Alleyn searched for a way of combining words with images, in fact creating a visual lexicon in which the spaces between objects were of the same importance as pauses in speech and writing, silence being the key.

And as interesting and unusual as his many series were, it is in his later works, the Indigo series done in the 1980s, that his true mastery of painting and composition becomes evident.

This is not to dismiss his earlier production, which is as diverse as were his interests and social engagements. A free thinker, he questioned the role of the individual in society, and pondered the encroachment of technology and media on art. This led him to create such unusual works as the multisensory sculpture, Introscaphe, one of the first multimedia works ever made; we are talking about 1970 here. Shown for a month at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, it consists of an egg-shaped capsule, which visitors were invited to enter and go through an immersive, multisensory experience.

After returning to Quebec in 1971, Alleyn produced the Suite québécoise, an installation depicting realistic, colurful figures taken from photographs of crowds, which he then painted on Plexiglas and installed in front of gaudy representations of sunsets.

“My works are an aide-memoire for life; a fragmentary antidote against amnesia, which kills more effectively – and softly – that the bullet shot by the elite. And work creates the illusion that one can momentarily escape the promiscuity of the void,” Alleyn wrote in his wonderful compilation of notes on art, published recently as By Day, By Night (Les éditions du passage, 2013).

This, somewhat perfunctory approach to art, is what makes Alleyn such an interesting artist, for it allows for constant questioning and exploration, and in his particular case, it is in those inner spaces, the between-the-lines, that most of his personal message and vision resides.

His series Blue Prints (1978) is especially reflective of this stance; painted cutouts of featureless figures, blue against blue, emerging or receding, it’s hard to tell. Sentinels or ghosts? Visual notations for a future composition? Or perhaps beginning of a stage set?

The theatricality of many of Alleyn’s works is undeniable, and adds to the excitement of viewing them. The visitor becomes an instant participant, willingly or not, yet another player, the role to be defined.

And although much of his production feels dated, and not the best fit for a museum known for presenting cutting edge artists, it is his unpretentious and versatile approach to art-making that makes Alleyn palatable in this day and age. We can still marvel at his early First Nations- inspired pieces like Un brave en gala, meander through the Suite québécoise, and Blue Prints, and stand in quiet amazement in front of his silent, monochromatic paintings like Lieux or From the Dark Within.

But it is in the very last room of this eclectic presentation that breath really subsides. Large format, indigo infused tableaux, speak a very different visual language. Towards Amnesia is but a purple undulating line, like a hint of a tropical horizon against an inky background that seems to draw the soul in. L’invitation au voyage shows a barely sketched motorboat floating against the same ebony darkness, suspended in it, surreal and foreboding.

“The challenge is to establish to what point painting can accommodate theatricality without ceasing to be painting. To see if the silence of painting can project word-images,” Alleyn writes in his notes. “What I seek is bittersweet painting, both soft and violent. Suspended rapture.”

I could not have said it any better. 

Edmund Alleyn In my studio, I am many
Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art
May 19 to September 25, 2016