Mixing calm and menace

Philip Surrey, at his best, presents a paradoxical, mystifying mixture of banality turning into violence

HENRY LEHMANN
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL
Sep 25, 2004 – p. H2

Montreal painter Philip Surrey (1910-1990) is best known for his nocturnal scenes – at least by those relatively few members of the general public who have heard of Surrey at all.

With the recent opening of Philip Surrey, Retrospective Exhibition at the venerable Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, it is time to discover – or rediscover – Surrey and his particular poetic vision.

There are about 60 works in the current show, borrowed from collections around Montreal. This is the annual non-commercial exhibit put together by the Klinkhoff Gallery; the works are on display but not for sale.

A Surrey specialty, especially in the 1950s and ’60s when the artist was at his best, is a paradoxical, mystifying mix of extreme calm and chilling menace, banality turning into violence.

We do not need the title, “Three Girls Threatened by an Automobile”, to know that all is not well in this splendid 1969 oil. Caught in the headlights is a semi-classical feminine trio, recalling the muses, their hair flying in the breeze. And, as a kind of bloody sequel to “Three Girls Threatened”, played out in rapturous blues and greens, is another painting, this one bluntly titled “Impaled Man” and depicting a fatal encounter between man and metal at one end of an underpass.

Aside from the violence, it’s a scene composed of a serene rectangular pattern of concrete blocks and a guardrail recalling the work of American realist painter Edward Hopper.

In fact, it’s possible to think of Surrey as the Hopper of the North, though with shades of Giorgio de Chirico, the supreme poet of the long evening shadow.

It is in the shadows, outside the mainstream of social intercourse, that the artist saw himself. In Impaled Man, there’s just one lone figure, probably Surrey, moving along the sidewalk parallel to the accident. In fact, the artist appears in any number of his paintings: along the margins, next to a building or slightly down the street, but always separate from the madding crowd.

Perhaps this self-marginalization has to do with the artist’s own life, as asserted in Montreal writer T.F. Rigelhof’s excellent text in the little catalogue accompanying the show. Surrey was born in Calgary, but he travelled the world, dragged by his father, a man perpetually in search of adventure and work.

Rather than cavorting with schoolmates, the young artist doodled away hours in the lobbies of grand hotels in places like Singapore and Calcutta.

When Surrey’s parents broke up, the artist’s mother took him to Alberta. Surrey dropped out of school at 14, and on his own went to Winnipeg, where he enrolled in art classes and worked as an illustrator.

After a number of years, he made his way to Montreal, landing a job as a graphic artist at the Montreal Standard, then published by John McConnell.

It was McConnell, in a magnificent gesture that is hard to imagine today, who enabled Surrey, at age 53, to take up painting full time; he told him he didn’t have to come to work, but could keep his salary. Even after his liberation, Surrey continued to dwell on life after dark. He also had a life-long interest in nightlife, even that occurring during the day, in bars and clubs.

Some of the best works in the current show are minute water- colour scenes, such as that titled The Little Club, depicting a small bevy of long-legged ladies leaning toward the bar rail, the lurid orange in the background setting the mood.

Though in the thrall of abstract pattern, Surrey remained at heart a realist in a time when abstract art was about to take Montreal by storm. Yet, Surrey was not anti-modernism, but rather a friend, theoretically and personally, to Canadian avant-gardists, among them the radical Paul-Emile Borduas.

In the long run, Surrey, a life-long depressive who committed suicide just a few days before his wife did the same thing, did not garner near the renown of some of his peers. Allan Klinkhoff suggests that his lack of fame resulted from his relatively small output and his unhurried work habits. And, though having worked in the publishing business, the artist had an aversion to deadlines, a necessary evil in getting shows together.

The current show is well worth a visit.

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