JOHN McLEAN

FLARE

 

22 JULY - 27 AUGUST

EDINBURGH

  • Colour, form, and space are the core elements of John McLean’s work. From the formal precision of his early work, to the free-flowing painterly expression he later developed, luminosity and rhythm run throughout.

    In 1981 he made his first visit as a guest artist to the Emma Lake workshop in Saskatchewan, Canada. Critics and artists there had an impact on John’s work, as did the landscape of the North American prairies.
  • Nothing had prepared me for the impact of the prairie light. It was far stronger, brighter and clearer than I had ever seen. I revelled in it…
     
    John McLean, 2013

  • JOHN McLEAN was a truly lyrical abstract artist and, indeed, he spoke of his work as like singing and dancing. In it, too, the analogy of art and music, long an elusive goal for artists, does actually work. Line and shape, hue and tint, transparency, depth, density, texture and ground, edges and the spaces between do indeed all combine together like the instruments in an orchestra. Colour is the key and his painting ranges from the truly symphonic down to the intimacy of unaccompanied song, — and he loved song —while the movements of hand and brush, or as often squeegee, sponge, or whatever else came to hand, suggest dance. The works in the present show belong mostly to the earlier years of his career, but they already illustrate his wonderful lyricism.

  • John was brought up in Arbroath. He had no formal art training, but his father Talbert McLean was a pioneer among Scottish abstract artists and his circle of artistic friends and former pupils helped nurture McLean’s own ambition. He began painting in the early sixties, dark, social-realist pictures, but, after moving to London in 1963, his first show held in 1964 was of hard-edged abstract paintings. Soon after he moved into free, gestural abstraction illustrated in this show by the lovely Thunder Bay (cat.1) from 1976. North American painting, both in the US and Canada, was an important inspiration to him a this stage in his career. In New York in 1972, he had met the American critic Clement Greenberg and through Greenberg he met abstract painters like Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland. His painting also became more formal in response to the colour-field painting of the late Morris Louis, and, although he never met him, he was also inspired by the work of the Canadian painter, Jack Bush. The floating brush strokes of Splayed (cat.2) from 1980 and Untitled (cat.5) from 1982, illustrate this moment and Bush’s lyrical colour and dancing, free-form motifs often found echoes in his work thereafter. He also became friendly with the Canadian painter William Perehudof. In England, he was painting against fashion and the friendship and support of these North American abstract painters provided welcome encouragement. Nevertheless times were hard. After a semester teaching in Boston in 1983, he had to leave behind all the work he had done as he and his wife Jan couldn’t afford the carriage back to the UK. Years later, when a studio in Boston was cleared a roll of wonderful paintings came to light. In this show, the big, untitled, vertical composition in cool colours (cat.8) is a picture from that treasure trove.

    Right: John with his father, Talbert McLean (1906-1992)

    • John with William Perehudof at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, 1988

      John with William Perehudof at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, 1988 

    • John during his first visit to Emma Lake, 1981

      John during his first visit to Emma Lake, 1981

    • The Emma Lake workshop, 2000, when John was their Guest Artist

      The Emma Lake workshop, 2000, when John was their Guest Artist

  • John showed six big canvasses at the Serpentine in 1971, but shamefully he was never given a major solo show in a public gallery in the south. The only major exhibitions he did have in a public gallery in the UK were in the Talbot Rice in 1975, 1985, 1994 and 2003. He did show regularly with private galleries, however, and began to win recognition as a brilliant, committed and independently minded abstract painter.

     

    His visual vocabulary evolved later into floating shapes, blobs, crescents, loosely drawn rectangles and brush strokes as graphic shapes. Manitoba (cat.14) of 1984 and Piccante (cat.15) of 1989, are already moving in that direction. He became an accomplished print-maker. He also designed stained glass and in 2014 completed three windows in Norwich Cathedral. He was passionate about architecture and characteristically took careful account of the context of the windows. As a result, beautiful and luminous, they look quite at home in this ancient building. He was a gifted draughtsman and alongside his abstract works painted vivid watercolours, while his acute observation and sense of the comic made his Christmas and birthday cards, illustrated letters and postcards a delight. 

    • Designs for the stained glass windows at Norwich Cathedral

      Designs for the stained glass windows at Norwich Cathedral

  • International recognition came with a successful touring exhibition in China in 2016, but tragically in his last years, McLean was paralysed by a particularly vicious form of Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless, though his body failed him, his spirit remained quite unbowed. Assisted by Hideatsu Shiba, he continued to paint. Only weeks before his death, he was brought to Scotland to fulfil his wish to have one final exhibition. Held in The Fine Art Society, the paintings he showed were eloquent, poetic and poignantly beautiful. It was truly a swan song. 

     

    Although he lived in London for most of his adult life, John remained very much a Scot. He loved a pipe band and at his funeral the romanesque arches of London’s oldest church, St Bartholomew the Great, echoed to the sound of the pipes. In the near thousand years they had stood there, I doubt they had ever heard anything quite like it. It was a fitting tribute to a unique artist. 

     

    Duncan Macmillan

    Emeritus Professor of the History of Scottish Art at the University of Edinburgh and lifelong friend of John

     


  • Works in the exhibition are available to purchase, and we would be happy to send additional photographs or details.
    Further information and images for each artwork can be viewed by clicking on them.
    For sales and enquiries please contact
    edinburgh@thefineartsociety.com    +44 (0)131 557 4050

  • 1. THUNDER BAY, 1976 signed, titled and dated verso acrylic on canvas 106 x 171.5 cm

    1. THUNDER BAY, 1976

    signed, titled and dated verso
    acrylic on canvas
    106 x 171.5 cm
  • 2. SPLAYED, 1980 signed, titled and dated verso acrylic on canvas 142 x 175 cm

    2. SPLAYED, 1980

    signed, titled and dated verso
    acrylic on canvas
    142 x 175 cm
  • 6. UNTITLED acrylic on canvas 175 x 230 cm

    6. UNTITLED

    acrylic on canvas
    175 x 230 cm

  • While John's work is firmly grounded in spatial relationships, and is by no means representational, the influence of his environment is present. The crux is the interrelation of shapes, and the space between them, where light and the surrounding environment have an intangible effect.

    In an 
    interview with Emyr Williams in November 2019, John stated that “I have no issue with their having overtones of forms in nature and would even rejoice in that, but any shapes in my paintings are there for the painting’s needs – they gain their strength and meaning through their configuration, the way they connect with the spaces, the edges and the corners.”

  • 9. UNTITLED, 1982 acrylic on canvas 96.5 x 202 cm

    9. UNTITLED, 1982

    acrylic on canvas
    96.5 x 202 cm
  • 10. UNTITLED acrylic on canvas 73 x 177 cm

    10. UNTITLED

    acrylic on canvas
    73 x 177 cm
  •  The parts of my paintings relate to each other the way notes and phrases do in music. I contrast everything: edges, colours, surfaces, shapes.”

  • 14. MANITOBA, 1984 signed, titled and dated verso acrylic on canvas 164 x 104 cm

    14. MANITOBA, 1984

    signed, titled and dated verso
    acrylic on canvas
    164 x 104 cm
  • 15. PICCANTE, 1989 signed, titled and dated verso acrylic on canvas 102 x 135 cm

    15. PICCANTE, 1989

    signed, titled and dated verso
    acrylic on canvas
    102 x 135 cm
  • 'My pictures have no hidden meaning. To understand, all you have to do is look. Everything only works in relation...
    John at his Stockwell Depot studio, 1990s (photograph by Sarah Fitzgerald)
    "My pictures have no hidden meaning. To understand, all you have to do is look. Everything only works in relation to everything else in the painting… Looking triggers imagination and association…I work in terms of the feelings I can elicit with drawing, colour and surface…”
  • 23. SHAWMUT, 1982 acrylic on canvas 170 x 105 cm

    23. SHAWMUT, 1982

    acrylic on canvas
    170 x 105 cm

  • There is subtlety in John’s mark making and it is often lost in the translation of reproduction. The vitality that pulses through them demands to be experienced in the flesh. 

    A multidisciplinary artist, he moved across media, incorporating elements of collage into his paintings and drawings. John's ability to translate the luminosity and rhythm of his painting across media highlights the strength of his compositions, and the intentionality of each mark.




  • Known for his humour and lack of pretension, John left a remarkable impression on those he met and befriended. Following...

    Open studio at A.P.T. Studios and Gallery, London, 2007 (photograph by Bergitte Parusel)

    Known for his humour and lack of pretension, John left a remarkable impression on those he met and befriended. Following John's death in 2019, a series of tributes and memories have been compiled by Sam Cornish, and are available to view online.



    Click here to view our Edinburgh Art Festival 2022 exhibition John McLean: Flare