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Battle of the Abstract Expressionists

By Jane Durrell · July 10th, 2012 · Visual Art
img_0256.18090356_stdPaul Chidlaw - Courtesy: Mary Ran Gallery

The Battle of the Abstract Expressionists, as Mary Ran of Ran Gallery playfully calls her current show, could be a draw between the artists, but color rules in the works of each. Two well-known, deeply committed 20th century Cincinnati artists, Jack Meanwell and Paul Chidlaw, both practiced abstract expressionism — as opposed to non-objective art, in which tangible subject matter has been thrown out entirely — and both used color with visceral pleasure.

Almost two decades apart in age — Chidlaw was born in 1900 and Meanwell in 1919 — each taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, although not at the same time. The exhibition is career-spanning for both; the earliest work in the show is not abstract expressionism at all, but a mid-1940s ink drawing of an automobile produced by Meanwell as a Detroit commercial artist. Ran, who has worked with both artists through the years, speaks of their tenacity in the face of physical problems in continuing to make art until the end of their lives. Chidlaw was nearly blind and no longer painting but making charcoal drawings when he died in 1989. Black and white constituted all that his remaining, exclusively peripheral vision allowed him to see. Meanwell, fighting Parkinson’s disease, persisted with paint until his death in 2005. 

The difference in age accounts to some degree for the difference in their works. Chidlaw, growing up in Cleves, graduated from the Art Academy and worked as a designer until he could afford to go to France and study there. He went for one year, stayed for eight, and later wrote, “All of Paris was an illustrated text book…” 

Chidlaw looked closely at art everywhere but Cezanne and Matisse, in particular, led him to the style that became his own.

Returning to Cincinnati, Chidlaw taught at the Art Academy for nearly 20 years, had his own school for a dozen years, and ended his teaching career as artist-in-residence at Edgecliff College. He was a distinctive personality.

Meanwell, a generation younger and Canadian by birth (growing up in Windsor, Ontario), crossed the river to Detroit for his art schooling. These were Depression years and practicality influenced his turn from fine art to business art studies. But World War II put all such questions aside and he spent four years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

Practicality would reign again when Meanwell went into advertising art following the war and then, in the move that brought him to Cincinnati, he partnered in a coffee company. A couple of decades later he would sell his interest in the coffee company and become a full time painter and instructor in the community education program at the Art Academy. The paintings bloomed.

Chidlaw’s works are darker, by and large, than Meanwell’s, whose colors almost rise from the surface in their glowing fervor. Figural shapes are frequently apparent in Chidlaw’s work, and many people see landscapes in his compositions although the artist himself did not always agree. Figures can be discerned in Meanwell’s work too, sometimes seeming to have been caught in mid-dance, and the grand Canadian landscape is recurrent in his work. 

Meanwell himself spoke of the influence of the Group of Seven, Canadian artists of the 1920s and 1930s. Their lyrical and loving representations of places he himself knew had a profound influence on his own work, playing the role for him that Cezanne and Matisse had for Chidlaw. He moved to a distinctive style of his own, a palette knife often used to create an irregular, intensively active surface. Always searching, he also made the unusual choice to sometimes paint with oil on paper, a heavy, glossy paper, for a totally different effect from oil on canvas.

Chidlaw himself said about his art, “What I paint are essences, a visual poetry,” and “I compose in color … color and shapes are notes and chords.” Meanwell, in a catalogue for a show of his work at the Miami University Art Museum in 2000, is quoted as saying “The paint itself is often the subject.” 

So this exhibition is less a battle than a gathering of compatible but individual viewpoints in a style seldom followed today. No doubt there are artists who studied under each of these men working in Cincinnati now. A visit to the Ran Gallery will show you where they’re coming from.

BATTLE OF THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS is on view at Mary Ran Gallery through July 29. For more information, visit www.maryrangallery.com.



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