Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly

WILL MACLEAN 27 February – 26 March 2016, IMAG.

WM-Stormbird Harbinger

Storm-Bird Harbinger by Will Maclean, No7 in a series of 12 collages and poems;  A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

With due attention, everything is song. John Burnside, Song of a Storm-wave.

I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Will Maclean recently, coinciding with the opening of his latest touring exhibition; Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (IMAG). Developed in association with Art First, London and An Lanntair, Stornoway, the show contains striking new work including his collaboration with poet John Burnside; A Catechism of the Laws of Storms and wonderful examples of retrospective works drawn from public and private collections.

There is something seamless and powerfully evocative in Will Maclean’s work that seems to emerge from the collective unconscious, deep below the Plimsoll line. Objects dredged from a vast ocean of human consciousness are potent triggers of memory and narratives, woven in the mind of the artist and the imagination of the viewer. Maclean’s Art is as grounded as it is profound; borne of a Craft of making, a tactile tradition integral to life on and by the sea, part of the artist’s bloodline and inheritance. Described as “artist laureate” of the Highlands and Islands, Maclean’s work has always grappled with the poetics of visual language; sensed and felt in the natural environment he grew up in and woven into the rhythm of sailor’s knots, binding organic and man-made materials together in his work. The skills of an artist, visual poet, engineer and mariner are finely honed in his box constructions, drawings, collages, screen prints, sculptural installations and monumental land based works. His assemblages of objects cast ashore on eternal tides of human history feel strangely comforting; part of an archetypal inheritance of mythologies collectively shared. It’s this transcendental quality of the specifically local and deeply personal, expanded to the universal which distinguishes and elevates MacLean’s work. Having left a life at sea and “swallowed the anchor”, his practice is indigenous in the fullest sense of the word; bringing a deep, reverent understanding of the history, folklore and mythologies of the tribe, together with an intimate knowledge of the physical environment to all his visual and sculptural work. Maclean’s practice of assemblage and collage creates its own particular Surrealism; a heightened awareness in bringing objects together across time, melding two and three dimensional techniques in a fluid exploration of individual identity and our collective selves.

Maclean Inst w Memory Board + North Atlantic

Left to right: Memory Board (Mixed media and found materials) and Winter, North Atlantic (2014, Painted wood and resin, 124 x 105 x 5cm) by Will Maclean. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

Winter, North Atlantic (2014, Painted wood and resin, 124 x 105 x 5cm) is an intensely powerful example, rendered with all the artist’s understanding and “due attention”. The surface itself is exquisite, a fine gradient horizon of steel hue and an inlaid, mouth like tomb, striated and metallic as the taste of blood. The core depth of this sculpted surface has an aerial, God-like perspective, like that of a receding cargo hold; part reliquary, part refuge for the unconscious self. The oxidization of natural processes and flow of crimson are framed and held within what feels like a monumental expanse of richly textured, dark ground. The bend of wood warped by ocean waves and floating text surface and subside in a fluid interplay between two and three dimensions. This is how mind and memory work and one of the joys of experiencing Maclean’s Art is identification with what it is to be human; the mystery of what is known and what can be sensed in the inky depths or brilliant white illumination of his carefully layered grounds.  Often drawn marks are part of this framed foundation into which Maclean places assembled and hallowed objects. Like an ancient explorer of unchartered waters, the artist casts his nets deep; divining, navigating, visualising pathways of meaning and narratives, drawing the viewer compellingly into the work.

One of Maclean’s mixed media box constructions Fladday Reliquary, part of the IMAG collection, is a particularly beautiful example. The bone white delicacy of a bird skull is framed and held by charcoal fired wood, rusted hooks and lineages disappearing into the base of the construction. The stark tonality of found materials and layered recesses lead the viewer further into the work with each successive viewing. It is a shame that this work and others in the IMAG collection are not on permanent display as part of the visual culture of the region. Like Maclean’s creative excavation of our collective archeology – if you want to come into contact with the visual traditions of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd then even in 2016 the viewer/ audience still needs to go digging. This work ought to be part of a permanent display, a publicly visible cultural statement which exists in other cities the world over. Go to Spain for example and you won’t find Picasso, Goya or Miro permanently hidden in storage, visible only when a touring exhibition illuminates their significance. In cities like Barcelona, Madrid or Amsterdam, Art as a reflection of Culture is resoundingly present, part of how the city, region and country sees itself, acknowledged internationally. The quality of this exhibition and the nature of its content present a compelling argument for celebration of the continuity of Scottish Visual Culture, confronting difficult but essential questions about historical precedents of cultural ownership in the process.

Maclean’s work has always engaged with this visual tradition directly through the Craft of making. Memory Board (Mixed media and found materials) is a poignant example, the fragment of a life boat both literally and metaphorically. In a progression of thought, materials and tonal submersion this piece feels like an anchor of the soul, with memories of men and fishing boats flanking either side of its triangulated apex. The movement from dark to light feels both grounded and aspirational, a monumental fragment, worn by time and the elements; weathered driftwood, riveted copper oxide metal and fragile human handwriting articulating the work. There is a sense of cultural artefacts of loss and resilience created from the combination of hand crafted and organic materials. MacLean’s handling of found materials, instinctive care and devotional reverence convey very powerfully emotional loss but also the strength of a timeless living tradition, reimagining the world. This is also invoked in Maclean’s Rudder Guardians (1999, Mixed Media), totemic figures in a progression of black, red, blue/green and white, guardians of the soul’s journey through and beyond this life, figures of protection aligned with the steerage of self-awareness and determination. These starkly linear, elongated sculptures and the shadows they cast on the gallery wall are Aboriginal and universal in their immediate, visceral presence. They are powerfully, symbolically present, spear-like in their inner trajectory and equally mysterious in the long shadows they cast, suggesting human drives of creative need, protection and social cohesion which universally define us as a species. At base we will always need Art and stories to make sense of ourselves; the skill of the artist is in initiating those connections so that we can remember. This shifting perception is part of the fabric of MacLean’s Art in terms of his creative process and in the act of seeing.

WM-Nomad installed2016

Nomad Trace by Will Maclean (2011, mixed media construction, two panels, each 122 x 244 x 5cm.) Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

The artist’s imperative to explore this territory of mind can be seen and felt in Nomad Trace (2011, mixed media construction, two panels, each 122 x 244 x 5cm.) which creates a sense of an entire artic landscape in the shimmering Northern light of layered pigment and beeswax, icy blue emerging from the monumental white expanse of the diptych. The panels linked by a drawn circumference feel like interior maps. The tracery of form, drawn marks and inner framed recesses of the panels containing totemic vertebrae which emerge, dissolve and recede like melting ice into infinite white; a synthesis of Nature and a human eye and mind perceiving it. How you’re drawn into this work and the mythology of the Northern landscape creates a place of stillness within, an imaginative territory that the viewer is free to explore, led by ancient symbols of journeying between conscious and unconscious states of awareness.

WM-Atlantic Messenger Hirta

Atlantic Messengers-Hirta (1998, mixed media, 158 x 52 x 31cm) by Will Maclean. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

One of my favourite works is the sculptural installation Atlantic Messengers- Sula Sgeir, Hirta and Fulmarus (1998, mixed media, each 158 x 52 x 31cm) which have a figurative human presence, like Classical Feminine Graces, the three Moirai  or a chorus bearing witness to the tragedy of evacuation. Containing enshrined objects of cultural acknowledgement and remembrance, cast and recast in resin, darkly framed and elevated on plinths, Maclean’s “St Kilda Ladies” contain personal memories and collective associations with life, death and renewal. The cast guillemot eggs and boat forms are historically laden with narratives, a penny for the mail boat and a coin for the boatman on the final journey. To me they have always felt like guardians of an underworld of burgeoning awareness, like Inuksuk; Inuit cairns in Northern Canada- human symbols reassuring the traveler through that vast, frozen  expanse that they are on the right path. The distinctly Feminine egg forms are both solid and fluid, like weighted tears, combined with geometry of form, like buoyant instruments of navigation, enduringly upright on ever changing seas. Although the white of the central plinth creates a Christian tryptic focus, the base construction of wooden pegs, like that of an ancient bardic instrument without its strings, suggests a much older connection to the mythology of the sea and our human origins.

WM-Towards Voice Sept

Towards the Voice of the Night – by Will Maclean, No4 of a series of 12 collages and poems;  A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

Another highlight of the exhibition is MacLean’s collaboration with the poet John Burnside, A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, which has also been published by Art First, London, in book form.  Displayed here as a series of 12 screen prints in three colours accompanied by each poem, the union of images and poetry is completely symbiotic. The starting point was a found London Times of 1880, engravings which were the raw materials for MacLean’s beautifully Surreal collages. These images were then interpreted by the poet, inspiring and creating a series of works beyond text and illustration. Song of a Storm Wave, Storm-Bird Harbinger, Towards the Voice of Night and Apparition of the Re-drowned are especially fine examples of what feels like an intimately epic song cycle. At the heart of Song of a Storm Wave there is an illuminated human presence, a palette forms the body of an instrument within a ghostly moonlit silhouette; human form composed of found text and image, meaning as fluid as the collage process, the movement of a surfacing porpoise and the rhythm of waves. The flow of creative process from image to text feels absolutely right; it’s a sublime marriage of Art and Poetry.

WM-Song of a Stormwave

Song of a Storm Wave by Will Maclean, No1 of a series of 12 collages and poems;  A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.

www.artfirst.co.uk

https://www.highlifehighland.com/inverness-museum-and-art-gallery/

John Byrne Sitting Ducks

14 June – 19 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

1-29 November, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

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John Byrne American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971).

I recently attended a talk by James Hall at the Inverness Book Festival promoting his latest work; The Self Portrait, A Cultural History and emerged incredibly incensed and frustrated. Much like the proliferation of selfies all over the net, the scope of the talk amounted to scratching at surfaces, the emphasis on narcissism, costumed props and the artist displaying their genius. When I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait I don’t see an artist proclaiming his genius to the world, although artistic genius is certainly present. What brings people to his work time and again is its honesty and humanity. The artist painted himself unrelentingly warts and all, vulnerable, aging and fallible. It is a face onto which we may project ourselves. What makes Rembrandt great is that in the self-portrait he transcends time and himself, he communicates the universality of human experience. To look at Albrecht Dürer’s famous self portrait of 1500 and see only a Christ- like figure completely misses the complexity and contradiction of the image. When I saw this work in Munich a few years ago after a lifetime seeing it in reproduction, what struck me most was the intimacy of scale and expression. It is invested with tremendous subtlety, a face conveying age in spite of youth and myriad of expression. The artist’s hand points resoundingly to the centre of his chest. It’s the ultimate “I am” statement by any artist or human being in any century, an image of self-determination and self -possession, resolute and uncompromising. Equally Dürer’s eyes communicate a deep sadness and knowing of the limitations of what it is to be human. It is simultaneously an image of divine aspiration and earth bound mortality, timeless in relevance.

When I had the pleasure of seeing John Byrne’s exhibition Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week I also perceived an artist and a man, acutely aware of what complex and contradictory beings we are, both to ourselves and to each other. Typically Byrne caricatures himself in many of his self-portraits, he isn’t about celebrating himself but revealing all that we are by default. Some of the most beautiful works in the exhibition are also the most uneasy, ambiguous and unflattering.

In an early work Self Portrait with Red Palette (Oil and Acrylic on Plywood, 1974/5) Byrne’s flawless composition is matched with uncertainty. The diptych is an expanded space of vivid turquoise, the artist pushed into the right panel, steadfastly meeting the viewer’s gaze, red palette in one hand, cigarette in the other. The shadow cast by the figure is mirrored by the shadow of a black palette on the floor like another self, the edge of the palette disappearing tonally like the elusive nature of the painter’s art. A later work Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012) shows the artist pushed to the bottom of the frame, with what feels like a dead weight of white ground above. It is an image of self and of the human condition of aging, confrontational in its honesty, the exposure of white revealing strength, resilience and ultimate frailty.

John Byrne - Self Portrait on white

Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012).

In Self Portrait in Camouflage Jacket (2001) the artist’s face is emotionally in shadow, eyes rolled back heavenwards, two palettes hung round his neck like dog tags.  A white palette hangs in front while the other black, rectangular and smeared with paint hangs behind it, the whole image infused with conflict and vulnerability. The camouflage pattern merges with the recurrent motif of thorns, a snake coiled round the artist’s arm, his hand upturned in the foreground as if begging the viewer for human recognition. A pen pierces the artist’s breast, a tear in the flesh like the open wound of a confessional canvas, an internalised, psychological war being waged at cost to the individual. Awareness demanding its price. Byrne’s Self Portrait (Oil on Canvas, 1988) depicts a moment of reflection and distortion which lies at the heart of all portraiture, playing with certainties of self, painted object and genre in Magritte-like fashion in Ceci n’est pas un Auto PortraitThis is Not a Self Portrait (mixed Media on Paper 2003).

In his portraits Byrne demonstrates dazzling sensitivity and superb draughtsmanship. John With Saxophone (The Artist’s Son), (Graphite and Pencil on Paper, 1986), Celie Watching Television (the Artist’s Daughter), (Pastel on Paper, 1972) and Portrait of Honor, 19 May, (Pastel on Paper, 2001) are particularly fine examples. Standing in a dress of soft pink the watchful stare of the artist’s daughter feels like a person in the process of becoming, the outlines of her feet and large shoes spilling into the viewer’s space at the edge of the picture frame. It is a deeply personal and universal image of innocence and recognition. Has she just stopped crying? We can’t be certain, but we can see and feel a growth of awareness, a shift in perception- in the artist, the subject and in the mind of the viewer.

John Byrne - Honor

Portrait of Honor, 19 May (Pastel on Paper, 2001)

A Pair of Drawings; Honor and Monkey (Artist’s Daughter) and Xavier and Cat (Artist’s Son) (Watercolour and Crayon on Paper, 1999) return to a naïve handling of the figure seen in American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971). Both children are doll like, in oversized oriental costumed dress, half pyjamas, half ceremonial, flanked by hostile animals baring their teeth directly at the viewer’s gaze. As an image of childhood there is primitivism in the stage of development and in the treatment of the figure, the personalities of both children still being formed subject to immature, instinctual drives and emotions. They are fascinating drawings with a wealth of associations and ambiguities, lovingly observed in all their truth. The same may be said of Janine With Flowers (The Artist’s Wife) (Oil on Canvas, 2010) a Kahloesque vision where roses and thorns equally define the sitter.

Coinciding with Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dead End at Bourne Fine Art, Dundas St, Edinburgh until 1st September celebrates Byrne’s prolific work and his unique, evolving iconography. In The Huntsman and the Snowy Owl (Casein on Paper) the figure appears blinded by the moon, pushed to the edge of the image, trying to see. Acidic yellow light illuminates the hollows of the uneven ground on which he stands, framed by a signature cloud and a bare, thorn like tree, at once brutal and poetic. In Big Selfie (Casein on Paper) Byrne’s age and experience are written in the hollows of his eyes, his still quizzical hair and smoke from his cigarette drawing elusive forms in the air. Unlike most selfies the image isn’t composed to flatter or project the ego of its maker for viral mass consumption. At 74 Byrne continues to do what he has always done, peering into the core of ourselves.

Short film introduction to the John Byrne Sitting Ducks exhibition featuring works referenced above:

 http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/john-byrne/john-byrne-film

All images and film link by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.