Skip to main content

Most artists - like most people - are built from polarities. We are not one thing or another; it's our both-at-onceness that defines us as human.

The art of Montreal painter John Heward exemplifies this idea better than most, as is evident in his abstract canvases, photographs and sculptures on view currently at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, works that are animated by contradiction. The show, the first retrospective of his work to be held outside his home province, has arrived from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, and it will introduce many to an artist who, at 75, has registered more faintly than he should have on the national consciousness, in part because of his indefinability.

This show should set things straight.

Culturally, Heward's backstory is complex. An anglophone Quebecker, he has a silvered family pedigree. (He grew up in a greystone on Peel Street, and his aunt was the Beaver Hall Hill painter Prudence Heward.)

Nonetheless, he's a bohemian. Free jazz has been a critical counterweight to his painting practice for decades, keeping him loose. (He performed at MoCCA on Thursday.) But his art making also spans opposites. First, he straddles painting and sculpture. The large, unstretched canvases in the show, for which he is best known, are all dated 1988-1999, and they reveal a density of work on their surfaces, achieved by reworking over many years. Instead of stretching them on support frames, though, Heward hangs his canvases unsupported from the wall or ceiling in great hulking mounds, their surfaces folded inwards and often inscrutable.

Even when they are hung on frames in the conventional way, as some of these works from the seventies are, his paintings harbour folds and flaps that conceal their inner workings. Heward describes all of his works as self-portraiture, and he is famous for roughhousing with his art - reports abound of him dragging these paintings around the studio and flinging them about - but museum visitors are not permitted to follow suit. Still, looking, we understand them to hold depths.

Second, Heward's art spans art-historical categories. Emerging as an artist in the early seventies, already in his 30s (before that he worked as an editor in London and as an exhibition designer and set painter for various Canadian museums), Heward was largely self- taught, coming into the art world without pre-conceptions. Thus, he was free to browse. Neither Abstract Expressionist fish nor minimalist fowl, Heward is a curious artistic species in between. In his Ab Ex mode, Heward can be graceful or brutal, fierce or delicate.

One moment you find yourself reading a black line and having a Franz Kline moment, or thinking about Chinese calligraphy, or the plump, glossy plenitudes of Robert Motherwell. The next minute you're suspended in the minimalist space of Richard Tuttle, revered for his spare gestures and barely there painterly assemblages. (Like the American artist, Heward often affixes his unprimed canvases directly to the wall.) Kazimir Malevich even shows up to take a few turns. These paintings are dense with history.

For all this variety, though, there is a central dichotomy that unites almost everything Heward makes: the play between tension and release. Moving around the gallery, you see this contradiction in play over and over: in the slim, paint-drenched catalogue from one of his past exhibitions that he has folded, smothered in black, sluiced with a lick of white paint and then clamped with one of his beloved beam clamps (small store-bought metal fists that read like muscular little claws); in the smattering of tiny, tobacco-coloured canvas objects from 2003-5 that he has painted freely and then clamped in multiple grips of steel and affixed to the wall; or in the magnificent hanging works that spill from the ceiling, held together by metal clasps as they cascade to the floor and pool there. One towering work commences at the top with a swath of earthy grisaille (its coloration reminded me of Lascaux in southwestern France, one of Heward's favourite places), deviates into two plain sections (one bearing a Cy Twomblyish scrawl impregnated here and there with ochre, the other a foggy field of grey and black) and concludes at the floor with a silky white flag emblazoned with a massive blob of black - the expressionistic period at the end of the sentence. You read this like a poem, its flowing cadences held together by links of hardware.

The MoCCA show is too crowded fully to do these works justice - there are easily two times too many of them in the space allotted - but they still survive. Each assemblage finds its own shape through gravity (Heward call it a "stance"), embodying a kind of contest between the artist's control (his painterly gestures, colour and material choices) and the forces beyond his control (gravity, chance).

Heward's paintings seem to say: There's a balance to be struck in art and life. We make our marks, we exercise out intention, but sometimes the magic comes when you let things slide. We all need our beam clamps, but - spilling here and there in ways that are by turn beautiful or ungainly - we are most alive in the messy drips and dashes in between. These are paintings to live by.

John Heward: A Trajectory/A Collection continues at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto until Jan. 3 ( ).