In Cincinnati painting circles two names, from a recent past, keep their magic. The late Paul Chidlaw and the late Jack Meanwell, both of whom painted with a flashing style raised from the canvas in waves of impasto excitement. Both artists’ works are available at Mary Ran Gallery, but it’s Jack Meanwell who’s currently in the gallery spotlight. Thousands of pieces of Meanwell’s arework on hand at Ran, much in the form of small pieces and studies, but about 100 “really good” finished canvases. (Quotes from Mary Ran.) The range of subjects , style and media hit nearly everything in two dimensional description, starting with a large , late-in-career landscape, “Landscape in Primaries”, 60” x 72”, in the front window of the gallery , a real traffic stopper.
Strange to say, it was Jack Meanwell’s flowers that first captured my attention many years ago. I’m not much of a flower art lover, but these were botany in motion. Such activity in such a simple subject convinced me that Meanwell was a cut above.
Action bursts from his double nude drawings with the same quality found in all of his subject matter, as if the artist couldn’t wait to put medium to paper. The obvious speed and gesture generate excitement. Surrounding areas are splash-painted with corresponding energy in color that often denies a perceptible hint of antagonism between the subjects. If I had not seen the flowers first, these would have certainly sealed my interest. These drawings pick up the gauntlet and run. Figures merge, assume combatant poses, circle each other in competition for the foreground and through frenzied line convey a comprehensive menu of human emotions a deux.
No less captvating are some very small , about 5” x 7”, watercolors in rectangular format on a larger piece of paper. Totally abstract, perfectly presented with Meanwell’s innate color sense, these little gems were just that: gems.
Most of the paintings being shown are rather abstract landscapes, in medium to large measurements, retaining the basics of sky, land and water even while being blown wildly apart by infinite slashes of color. These little shards of paint clambering over the surface in what seemingly has no definitive meaning, eventually resolve into impressions of Meanwell’s little island in Canada, painted over and over again, but never truly repeating itself. Born in Canada, he returned each summer to the quiet, remote world of Mcgregor Bay, never losing his fresh eyes for the variety this familiar landscape presented: reflections in the surrounding water, the appearances of aurora borealis, the moods of both weather and artist, interpreted with uninhibited involvement.
Not that he was just as likely to portray local sites. One large, pastel-palette painting depicts the Cincinnati skyline in a nearly non-objective rendering. Like most of his landscapes, it takes a minute to find a place to hang your opinion, as they offer so much. Eventually you will discover the bridges, the river and the city itself melting into the paint quality, enhanced by its mystery.
As can be expected with so much impasto, texture takes on the next important place in Meanwell’s work. When it isn’t physically popping up from the surface of the canvas, it lurks in unsuspected shapes strewn almost at whim, waiting to surprise the viewer with tiny patches of bonus pleasures.
Then, should you tire of color, there are a few monochromatic drawings, and even a couple in nearly basic black: good reason to keep peering around the corners of the Ran Gallery for hidden treasure.
In addition to talent, Meanwell was a truly nice human being, a fact which made his classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnti continuously popular. Any gathering of Cincinnati artists will provide vignettes attesting to his part in their progress.
For years, Closson’s was his gallery of choice in which to show. But his venues over the years included hundreds of exhibits in area galleries, as well as Chicago, New York, and Canada. His early participation in the Canadian Group of Seven would certainly add to their pride in his accomplishments.
In a way, Jack Meanwell was an outsider artist, a phrase that rankles in many circles, in that he had no MFA. He was a an executive with a coffee company. Art was pushed away into spare time, and a basement studio, but art kept pushing back until Meanwell sold his interest in the company and turned to full-time painting, probably because he realized it was what he was meant to do. That takes guts, passion and confidence,
“These men were driven,” mused Mary Ran.
That drive in art has not diminished in Cincinnati. It’s always there, motors idling, looking for fuel.