George E. Russell led a career as an engaged teacher while assiduously pursuing his pictorial studio practice. Combined, these two experiences fueled his artistic undertaking.
Skilled in geometry, George was only 16 when he was admitted to an art class given at Emma Lake by the University of Saskatchewan (his home province). The year was 1949, well before the Emma Lake workshops started gaining notoriety by attracting some 80 prominent artists and critics from Canada, the United States and Europe – including Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg, leaders of the post-war American art scene.
Equipped with this defining experience in the Mecca of Canadian abstract art, driven by a desire to gain new knowledge, and motivated by the vitality of the Montreal art scene, Russell enrolled in the master’s program in Art Education at the Sir George Williams University. In fact, the deeply modern quality of Russell’s work takes root in Montreal. During this period, Russell’s paintings bear affinity to the works of the Plasticiens of Montreal, and the young painter sympathized with the artists of the American Hard-Edge – two movements characterized by a certain geometrical rigor, an economy of form and sharp solid colors. Attesting to these influences are several silk screens, as well as the Hexagonal Canvasses from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which feature emphatic pictorial surfaces. Op Art also influenced Russell, whose graphic strategies for visual perception are derived from this movement. His series from this period, Infinity and Optical Squares, Windows and Black and White Hex, are evidence of this.
Vast prairie plains, the distant horizon, and the sky with its endless stars and galaxies continue to inspire George Russell, immersed in a formalist universe as he is. The painter’s work is naturally linked to the aesthetics of the Canadian Prairies. These ties result in a special relationship with space, first illustrated in his landscapes and, ultimately, his abstract works. Furthermore, it is possible that George never forgot the know-how of his mother, who was a quilt-maker. The complex, sophisticated needlework makes use of a variety of colors, sharp contrasts and the clever arrangements of motifs. The Large Hexagonal Canvases from the second half of the 1970s as well as several of Russell’s watercolor series, integrate pictorial atmospheres inside abstract structures, with precision and an elaborate range of colors.
One can’t help but notice that most of the artist’s compositions share a common thread: the primary geometric shape of a triangle. For instance, in his watercolor series entitled Red Sails, several triangles act simultaneously as background and figures in a space that seems like a landscape. The series dating back to 1978-79 depicts red triangles that morph into a half-naturalistic, half-abstract pattern, which spreads through the entire work to its hexagonal edges. Does not the artist, when creating, give some order to the universe?
Among George Russell’s successive experiments, a few crucial phases reflect the flow of his thought process with particular accuracy, bearing witness to the development of his enterprise.
Russell pushes even further the organization of his favoured shape – the triangle – by operating endless multiplications and permutations, creating hexagons and other complex structures. Six triangles of equal size with a base longer than the sides, when repeated in a certain order, effectively form an irregular hexagon. This characteristic shape first appears as a figure in Russell’s paintings and ultimately imposes itself as the shape of the medium itself (hence the “shaped canvas”). Following the triangles that form them, the hexagons become a recurring theme in the artist’s work, all at once as a drawing, surface and signifier. They even present themselves as a metaphor of the perceptual field of our vision, a fact that appears clearly in the Self Portrait watercolors (1977) and Prairie Eye (1983).
The artist never ceases to develop new strategies to elaborate on the permutation of shapes, a principle for which he has built a system. In his recent Kaleidoscopes, triangles and colours are permutated in almost every possible way. Combined with this mathematical approach are a refined chromatic palette and great technical mastery. Kaleidoscope A - Z, a composite work made of interchangeable panels, is mounted as though the world turns on a single pivotal point... Russell’s art serves as a stage for a never-ending performance, demonstrating the invisible structure of a (his) expanding universe.
The creator of a composition code balanced between reality and illusion, between the figurative and the abstract, George E. Russell has followed a genuinely authentic creative process. The various coherent chapters of his prolific body of work, produced during an extensive and exciting career, are testament to this path.
Yolande Racine, Art Historian and Museologist
François-Marie Bertrand, Painter
Yolande Racine's Biography
An art historian and museologist, Yolande Racine served as a curator of contemporary art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from 1982 to 1992. From 1993 to 1996, she took her curatorial practice to the Musée d’art contemporain, where she led a program in multimedia creations, initiated and coordinated productions in the fields of new media, cinema, theatre, dance, music and poetry, and developed a residency program for multidisciplinary artists.
As executive director of the Pulperie de Chicoutimi from 1997 to 2003, Racine carried out the integration of the Musée du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean on the historical site of the pulp company. She moved on to become executive director of the Cinémathèque Québécoise, a position she held from 2005 to 2011. A published art writer, today Racine works as a freelancer. Her biography is listed in the Canadian Who’s Who and the Who’s Who of Canadian Women.
François-Marie Bertrand's Biography
François-Marie Bertrand studied at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ School of Art and Design between 1969 and 1972. His paintings have been shown at several solo and group exhibitions in Quebec, other provinces, and France. His work is also featured in the collections of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec as well as several private collections. Bertrand has also performed four projects through the Quebec government’s arts and architecture integration policy (the 1% Policy).