Reflections on An Linne

Jon Schueler Centenary Symposium and Exhibition

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye. 27-29 May.

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1973, Jon Schueler in his studio in Mallaig, Scotland. Photo: Magda Salvesen

How refreshing it is to have Art spoken or written about as a living thing! It is a rare convergence when an artist’s work finds its way back to the land and seascape that gave birth to it, accompanied by a circle of intimate reflections from family, friends and colleagues. The An Linne: Echoes, Reflections and Transfigurations symposium held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, on the Isle of Skye was a unique event; the opportunity to focus exclusively upon the life, work and impact of an artist who turned his back on the New York art world, moving to Mallaig on the Northwest coast of Scotland from 1957-58 and 1970-75. Overlooking the Sound of Sleat Schueler immersed himself in the elusive, fluid spaces between land, sea and sky overlooking, grappling with the true North within.  The confrontational Art of painting and the ultimate joy and terror of life expressed in his paintings, transcend their time and place. At the heart of Schueler’s work is “the search” and the struggle of acknowledging what we are as human beings and being authentically who we are as individuals.

Having spent way too many hours of my life listening to academics kill the meaning and joy of Art by drowning it in their own vocabulary, it was a real delight to see such a multi-faceted and heartfelt celebration of an artist’s work. Hearing the perspectives of those who knew, loved and worked with John Schueler, combined with those exploring “the deepening North” he was vitally drawn to was a real privilege. The core of his work was expressed and explored in many different ways; in words, music, through Gaelic language, painting, film, photography and at times, overwhelmingly, beyond them all in silence. The symposium offered a wide range of speakers from different backgrounds; Magda Salvesen, Jon Schueler’s widow and curator of his estate; Professor Meg Bateman, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Dr Lindsay Blair, UHI; Mary Ann Caws, Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature, City University of New York; Richard Demarco, CBE; Kenneth Dingwall, artist; Marian Leven RSA, artist; Will Maclean RSA; Dr Anne MacLeod; Professor Duncan Macmillan; Angus Martin, poet and historian; Dr John Purser, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Marissa Roth,  photographer, writer and curator; Carl Schmitz, Visual Resources & Art Research Librarian, The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation; Dr Joanna Soden HRSA; Finlay Finlayson who chaired a discussion with members of the Mallaig fishing community; Rob Fairley, Hamish Smith and Will Maclean; Professor Jim Mooney, artist and writer; Helmut Lemke ,sound artist, Jon Schueler Scholarship Artist 2014 and Oliver Mezger ,film artist, Jon Schueler Scholarship Artist 2015.

This gathering and the exhibition of selected oils, water colours and drawings from Schueler’s Mallaig years, together with the work of Jon Schueler Scholarship recipients 2013 – 2015, Takeshi Shikama, Helmut Lemke & Oliver Mezger, are part of a wider programme of events in the US and the UK celebrating the centenary of the artist’s birth. Seeing Schueler’s work exhibited at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig provides a unique opportunity to view his paintings juxtaposed with the natural environment outside, looking directly across the Sound of Sleat to Mallaig. It was a pleasure to see his paintings inhabiting this space; of shifting light, time and weather and being able inhabit them in such an immediate way as a viewer. There are many painters inspired by the landscape of the Highlands and Islands, but what separates the good from the great is arguably the capacity not just to “paint Nature” in a pictorial sense, but to “paint about Nature”, interpreting and expressing what it is to be truly present in the face of it. As Schueler expressed it; “the mystery is Nature and we are part of Nature.” Confronted with Nature’s elements and raw pigment, there’s nowhere for the artist to hide.

There is nothing Romantic about the process of making Art. In reality creative genius is always tethered to flesh and blood, human vulnerability and frailty. Equally vision and aspiration; striving to know the unknowable, unceasingly desiring what is just beyond reach, grappling with what we sense and see in fleeting moments of recognition are essential qualities for artists whose work resoundingly survives them . It is in the act of making that human beings find their divinity, closest to the truth of what we are and what we’re capable of, poised somewhere between heaven and hell.  The Art of painting is founded in a struggle with the medium and with oneself. It’s that essential creative drive to make sense of ourselves, the world within and without, coupled with our capacity for destruction and annihilation that defines us as a species. From his experiences during WWII to the confrontation of the studio, Schueler was intimately and intensely familiar with both tendencies. As a navigator, flying directly towards enemy fighters and gunfire, Schueler was confronted by imminent death and what he called the “failure” of his survival on a daily basis. This aerial vantage point, right on a psychic edge of consciousness, between the immediate possibilities of life or death, is relived over and over in his paintings.

On the first evening of the conference Richard Demarco highlighted the profound and lasting effect of WWII on an entire generation; an observance normally referenced as a generationally distanced footnote in the discussion of an artist’s work. He spoke passionately about the physical and psychological effects of the war and about his own experience during a bombing raid at Portobello Beach, Edinburgh, as a child; waving to the fighter crews and picking up still warm shell casings from the sand, innocently taking them home. Much later in the early 1980’s at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Demarco brought together lived wartime experience from opposite sides of the conflict in a meeting between Joseph Beuys and Jon Schueler. Within this gesture is the ethical imperative of Art and Art practice as the most powerful means of understanding and transformation that we possess; an ancient, Celtic idea which Beuys identified strongly with. Demarco’s perspective on Schueler’s work, like his reference to Martel’s “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” was very much about individual “ego dissolved into something bigger”. It is in the cosmic scale and unfathomable presence of Nature, that Schueler came face to face with his own. All of life’s questions were projected into the concept and physicality of his Northern skies; all of his joy, passion and rage, the unknowable Mother lost to him soon after birth and the Goddess Nature, mirrored in his own soul, cloaked by male desire. As Jim Mooney described, the “primacy of touch”, the innate sensitivity in Schueler’s Art, makes us aware of the duality of light within and without, which obscures as much as it illuminates. In Schueler’s own words; “rending veils of self-deception in the sky”, part of an eternal process of human creation and longing.

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1970, Jon Schueler in his studio, Romasaig, Mallaig. Photo: Magda Salvesen.

Schueler’s painting is immediate and gestural, grounded in loneliness, the guilt of survival and his parallel journeys into the psychological, interior worlds of Abstract Expressionism and his own true North. As Mary Ann Caw eloquently described; “The North is wanting”. In a painting such as Grey Sky Shadow, III (1974, oil on canvas) there is a palpable sense of a warm blush of orange, elusively hovering and emerging through the opaque subtlety of mauve-greys.  The colour drawing the eye is pushed to the edge of the composition as if in another passing second it will vanish beyond reach again. Broad brush marks rendered with a delicate touch reveal the artist’s sensibility in that moment. Seeking a connection with something greater and more enduring than ourselves is not a matter of cerebral indulgence but a holistic act of survival.

There is a long artistic tradition of Romantic engagement with Nature – or to be more accurate, the human eye and mind perceiving it and this is certainly one of many pathways into Schueler’s Art.  Jim Moodie made the connection between the artist’s work and one of my favourite texts as an undergraduate; Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko.  The pure inspiration and the great void of Friederich’s Monk by the Sea (painted between 1808 and 1810) has much in common with the human presence, emotional gravitas and intellectual trajectory of a Rothko or a Schueler painting.

Carl Smitz’s wonderful discussion of American Abstract Expressionism revealed another ethical dimension to Schueler’s practice; in Robert Motherwell’s insistence on sheer presence, invention and resolution through painting and in Ad Reinhardt’s witty cartoon; asserting that painting “is alive if you are!”Reinhardt challenges the viewer, like the artist, to define the ground upon which they stand. As Mary Ann Caw commented, Schueler’s “presentness” in his painting, his “creative anger” and “refusal of passivity” can be felt in the “residue” of his paintings. The confrontation of what we stand for collectively and culturally was also explored in Meg Bateman’s paper; “A Gaelic Way of Seeing? on language determinism, part of a much wider ongoing debate and reappraisal of the Visual in Gaelic Culture.

The question mark within the title originates from the evolution of modern Gaelic; becoming progressively more aligned with English translation and therefore describing rather than attributing values and meanings to the naming of colour as part of an indigenous world view.  Scales of colour were once understood “as part of a process” and in more holistic terms; in “varying scales of saturation, shininess and hue”, rather than being narrowly defined, or labelled. Connected with the natural world and its cycles, the historical Gaelic colour terms “appear to have been based on several different axes- on the degree of saturation, ranging between rich and pale, on the degree of reflectivity, between matt and shiny, on temperature and on the degree of patterning, between multi-coloured and plain. Domain further defined hue.”  In older Gaelic word usage, shininess and saturation of colour reflect cultural aspiration; attributing “praiseworthy” qualities or conversely, “contemptible” dullness. This sophisticated, multi-layered understanding of colour goes beyond simple translations of “green” or “brown” in English, revealing a different mindscape within the land and seascape of the Gaidhealtachd.

This innate connectivity of old Gaelic as a visual language arguably finds its closest translation today in the work of visual artists (regardless of their native tongue), whose chosen mode of expression is far less susceptible to language determinism. Drawing on an ancient vocabulary of understanding that existed in previous centuries highlights another level of loss and appropriation of language.  What we see in Schueler’s nuanced palette/ paint handling or in that of contemporary Scottish Artist Marian Leven is a close affinity with subtle scales of colour found in Nature and uniquely in the North of Scotland, defining ways of seeing and cultural values that fundamentally differ from dominant Western consumer culture. Leven’s observation about the “remoteness” of sky/ eye line of Manhattan compared to the North of Scotland, where the eye is level with the coastal horizon, a line “that embraces you like a mother” and the sense of continuity this imbues is extremely insightful in this respect. Bateman’s paper caused me to reflect a great deal upon what it means to be an artist and what our use of language; verbal, written or visual, says about collective cultural values and aspirations, our propensity for creative renewal and our capacity for survival.

The Highlands and Islands are often defined in terms of parochial remoteness, occupying a place in the global imagination right on “the edge of Europe” , however as Marian Leven rightly pointed out, this depends entirely on where your starting point is. Although Schueler chose to live and work in relative geographical isolation in the Northwest of Scotland, the scope of his work is a potent reminder that “the whole point of looking into is looking beyond”.

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December 1970, Jon Schueler at the door of Romasaig. Photo: Magda Salvesen.

http://www.jonschueler.com

http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/en/ealain-is-cultar/jon-schueler-centenary-symposium/

Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.

Northern Light

Rock of Ages- Allan MacDonald.

Northern Light: Recent Paintings by Peter Davis.

The Unbearable Brightness of Being– James Newton Adams.

12 August to 12 September. Kilmorack Gallery, By Beauly.

Rock of Ages  Rock of Ages by Allan MacDonald (Oil on canvas).

Three strong, individual statements emerge in Kilmorack Gallery’s latest exhibition, engaging with the Divine in Nature and human nature in a distinctively Northern climate.

Allan MacDonald’s breath taking seascapes reveal why he is regarded as one of the UK’s most respected and accomplished landscape artists. The beauty of MacDonald’s Art lies in its sheer physicality and meditative insight. His is an Art of going out to face the elements in all weathers, in driven pursuit of moments of understanding and connection. This essential honesty is directly translated into the artist’s handling of paint and transcendental palette. Light in every sense of the word permeates even his darkest and most turbulent paintings. There is always an eternal flash of optimistic blue and warm, resilient tones of underpainting emerging beneath immovable mountains or the steely gravitas of Northern Scottish skies. I’ve been following and writing about this artist’s work for over a decade now and his paintings never fail to astonish and inspire me. MacDonald’s unfaltering sense of the sublime in Nature and our human capacity for renewal through the creative Divine are at the heart of his work.

In Moonrise Strathy (Oil on board) large bold strokes and density from impasto, seeing clear to the ground fills the image with a palpable sense of energy and vigour. The half-moon and raging tide anchor the composition to natural cycles, confidently bordering on abstraction. In Northern Outpost (Oil on board) a glow of golden light breaks above the headland, shimmering over the water and into the viewer’s foreground. Loaded and incised marks down to the board convey the lashing sea in rich, vibrant green and blue, balanced with the warmth of lemon, ochre and cadmium yellow. In this ever changing furore, light is a constant source of illumination and a dominant presence; within the painting, the soul of the artist and the eye/mind of the spectator. In Rock of Ages (Oil on canvas) clefts of shadow delivered in bold, singular strokes and the dramatic sweep of light across the monumental rock face create a feeling of earth bound resilience and transformative wonder. Here lies the true lineage of Northern Romanticism, based on pure experience and communion with Nature, where human scale assumes, in cosmic proportion, its rightful humility.

The Ravages of Time

The Ravages of Time by Allan MacDonald (Oil on Canvas).

Crescendo

Crescendo by Allan MacDonald (Oil on board).

Appropriately hung on the far end wall of Kilmorack Gallery, in the space where the church altar would have been, are a trinity of large scale paintings, each one inspirational in its own aspect. To the right, The Ravages of Time (Oil on canvas), depicting sea cliffs shrouded in ocean spray and turbulent mist, conveying a sense of vulnerability in the fluid tracery of marks cascading over rocks into the ancient depth of the sea. Standing on the shore of a harsh environment, the promise of emerging light prevails. The central painting Crescendo (Oil on board) is a moment of light and hope breaking through the commanding gloom of storm clouds, over the relative calm of the sea. A deep emerald horizon of green and rolling blue anchors the painting in contemplative stillness, while MacDonald’s instinctive and illuminating brush work bring forth a resounding sense of human aspiration. The final painting, The Coming Brightness (Oil on canvas) is a telling surface of built up paint layers, labour which yields a wide semi-circular swathe of light cutting through the sky, reflected in the sea and striking the shore. Thin drips of yellow light and pure white pigment are contrasted by the deep purple and mauve shadow of the sky. It is a moment of realisation borne out of labour, of grappling with paint and the elusive nature of painting itself. In Voice of Many Waters (Oil on canvas) we see an essential trinity of structure, expression and spirit rendered equal.

The Coming Brightness

 The Coming Brightness by Allan MacDonald (Oil on Canvas).

Shetland based artist Peter Davis’s watercolours on paper deliver another beautifully distilled vision of a human eye and mind perceiving the landscape. In Storm Beach we see a meeting of elements; washes of suspended pigment, merging and overlapping, betwixt and between sky, land and sea, seeping to the edges of the composition. Davis’s masterful tempering of the paper and fluid technique create gathering strengths of water and pigment, like the troughs and ridges of a storm. The artist communicates a profound understanding of his environment and his chosen medium in landscapes that hold the imagination in deepening gradations of colour and heightened awareness. Lambi Loch (Watercolour on Paper) is a beautiful example, the landscape reduced to a Zen-like bowl of intensifying blue. In Loch at Westerwick the pure white paper of the foreground, anchored by a dark solid stone at the edge of the water grounds the viewer, while reflective light both sides of the horizon create a burgeoning sense of the infinite. These are quietly adept and exemplary works by an artist breathing new life into the medium of watercolour.

Storm Beach

Storm Beach by Peter Davis (Watercolour on paper).

The artist’s experimental approach is refined in Last Day, where the handling of pigment, leeched into stone or the convergence of tidal washes display masterful control. The lone rock is almost figurative and emotive in its associations; it’s a landscape of loneliness that extends into the distance and the high set, weighted horizon. Davis’s work speaks of being still and resoundingly present, both for the artist in terms of creative process and the viewer in seeing/contemplating his work. Davis’s palette is naturally subtle and finely nuanced, allowing space for each physical element within the picture plane; white paper, water and pigment to be mindfully observed, creating a space for the intellect and the imagination to dive into.

Lambi Loch

Lambi Loch by Peter Davis (Watercolour on paper).

Last Day

Last Day by Peter Davis (Watercolour on paper).

The acrylic on canvas paintings and mild steel sculptures of James Newton Adams are naively drawn, often humorous and insightful observations of humanity. The artist’s use of stark black and white with expressionistic accents of colour captures everyday life with refreshing economy and joie de vivre. Safety in Numbers exhibits a characteristic bird’s eye view, with the title referring equally to the school of fish or the human dwellings compressed into two coastal headlands, boats and buoys bobbing on the water like toys. Human figures in paintings such as The School Run, Market Day and Am Prabam are deceptively simple; however the posture of gestural marks conveys the attitude and the emotional state of each individual in the crowd, suggesting the nature of their interactions and relationships with others. The sense of close observation within small rural communities, dependent on the land and sea, is heightened in Adams’ painting The Fisherman’s Breakfast with its angular collection of figures; world weary, neurotic, hardened and inherently comic.

Safety in Numbers

Safety in Numbers by James Newton Adams (Acrylic on canvas).

The Fisherman's Breakfast

The Fisherman’s Breakfast by James Newton Adams (Acrylic on canvas).

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks defies the saying in the uncharacteristically open space the lone figure inhabits. You can’t help but smile as a grown bearded man flies a red kite whilst a small dog looks quizzically on from the edge of the composition! In spite of works like Fisher Boy which skate dangerously close to John Bellany’s raw and sombre vision of village life, Adams holds to his own vision- one which is infused with essential humour in the face of life’s harsher truths. There are also moments of the pure whimsy; in The Butter Dish with a dog eyeing the prize on the kitchen table whilst his elderly owner obliviously washes her dishes, or in the vibrancy and gentility of Open Garden. Adams’ elongated figurative sculptures such as Barrow Boy or Better Together are also infused with precariously poised humour and knowing, in the balance of form and in the relationship between a man and woman holding hands, one following behind the other.

Barrow Boy

Barrow Boy by James Newton Adams (Mild Steel).

Each artist is well represented and it is a pleasure to move between them in the exhibition space, giving rise to intense contemplation, avid thought and humorous delight.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Sam Cartman, Steve Dilworth and Patricia Cain

Kilmorack Gallery, 8 May – 13 June

Moon Sight- Stone

Steve Dilworth, Moon Sight- Stone (Dunite, 60 x 30 x 20cm)

Kilmorack’s latest exhibition combines visions of Nature, Humanity and Industry with paintings by Sam Cartman, pastels and mixed media works by Patricia Cain and a striking collection of sculptural objects by internationally renowned artist Steve Dilworth.

Stylistically this latest body of work marks a high point for Sam Cartman, whose distinctive landscapes capture the mark of agriculture and industry on the land, coupled with the emotional weight of expansive, brooding Scottish skies. In the context of contemporary landscape painting in Britain, it is refreshing to see Cartman’s industrial palette and architecturally structured compositions, coupled with the immediate response of drawn and incised marks in pencil, charcoal and oils. Although from a distance the formal arrangement of form, colour, and line dominate, immediately drawing the eye into the composition, up close there is subtlety and variety in the artist’s handling of paint that is a real pleasure to behold.

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Sam Cartman, Tynron Treelines (Oil, 58 x 61cm)

The bold deliberation and planar treatment of fields or sky are beautifully tempered by the textural qualities of thick impasto, using palette knife and brush, delicate washes and impulsive, spontaneous marks. Cartman’s engagement with the picture plane mirrors places where the imprint of human hands and industrial machinery are integrated into the rolling earth, hills and vegetation. These points of intersection between the structured order of the man-made landscape and natural elements are reflected in the artist’s paint handling.

Milnton Byre

Sam Cartman, Milnton Byre (Oil, 58 x 81cm)

Tellingly he chooses to paint a quarry on the Isle of Skye as opposed to the customary scene of misty mountains or an endless parade of picturesque coastal cottages. His art of landscape isn’t about the Romanticised or Picturesque but something more real and complex. The inherent design and physicality of paint create a sense of place somewhere between the rural countryside and urbanity.  This edginess can be seen in the way that paint is layered, pronounced edges, accents of hot orange or red and in the positioning of human architecture. In Milnton Byre (Oil) an out building is set in an abstracted composition of dense yellow ochre, the stark whiteness containing a depth of ultramarine, drawing the eye to a distant horizon of smeared, circular trees in blue and greens. There is a feeling of focused isolation in this work, laid bare in the more abstract painting Elephant (Oil) in a deeper, cooler and vibrant palette of blues.

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Sam Cartman, Skye Quarry (Oil, 91.5 x 122cm)

Cartman’s large scale painting Glenshee (Oil) sees the dynamic elements of his style pushed to their limit in an exciting combination of geometric abstraction and natural line. The sky is a progression of deepening tonality from left to right, intersected by white, rectangular impasto and the composition of blue, green, grey and white fields, with linear accents of orange and arched mountains, lead the eye to dwell convincingly at the centre of the composition. The sense of space and depth in the landscape is powerfully realised in the artist’s design, distinctive marks and distilled palette.

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Patricia Cain, Thicket II (Pastel, 170 x 170cm)

Patricia Cain’s mixed media works and pastel drawings provide a visual counterpoint between natural forms and man –made structures. Favouring the diptych, Cain creates spaces for contemplation in bisected images of growth; both in the natural world Thicket II (Pastel) and the built environment Arena (Pastel). The division of the image and detailed marks intervenes in how we might ordinarily read (or momentarily scan) images drawn from everyday life. In Arena Cain creates an incredible sense of depth in a myriad of scaffolding, hard metal drawn in the contradictory medium of soft pastel. Out with the tangled branches of Thicket II, she creates negative white space for the viewer’s mind to wander into. There is a sense of mapped chaos in organically charged intersections of branches and foliage; interestingly resembling an aerial, God-like perspective of humanity in a built up urban setting.

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Patricia Cain, Arena (Pastel, 186 x 250cm)

In Living as a Process (Pastel) Cain alludes to a human trajectory in young green leaves amongst a tangle of growth, set against swathes of white space, pregnant with creative possibilities.  Whilst the scale of ambition in Cain’s large scale drawings is undeniable, her abstract collaged mixed media works, reminiscent of an aged Matisse, are less convincing. The bold abstraction of Forest (Watercolour and Pastel) displays a more interesting interplay of visual elements; colour, line and form, in a concentrated ground of red hot vermillion. Emotional and spatial depth is created with the utmost economy; with dual vertical lines in white and black receding into the distance, whilst the upright solidity of the tree in the foreground, partially shaded in pastel and with a single curve, brings the suggestion of growth in cool shades of green and blue.

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Patricia Cain, Living as a Process (Pastel, 111 x 150cm)

On entering the gallery the gravitational pull of Steve Dilworth’s sculptural objects cuts a swathe through the space. The presentation of this three dimensional work on a series of waist height plinths allows the viewer to get up close from multiple angles and experience the intimately tactile qualities of each work, with directional lighting enhancing the angular precision of their sublime craftsmanship.

Moon Sight-Stone (Dunite) combines Deco-like elegance of line with the grounded integrity of stone, millions of years old. Drawn from the landscape of Harris, the seamless combination of fluid planes and orbital form suggests shifting light and perception, the phases of the moon, the passage of time and of the seasons over millennia. It is the entire cosmos in a single piece of earth; the living, breathing presence of Nature whose beauty lies in being both deadly and Divine. The complex hollows of the orbital cavity shift and change between positive and negative space, darkness and light, waxing and waning before the viewer’s eyes and summoning something deep within. Moon Sight-Stone speaks to the viewer on a primal level. The hollow orb could be an eye or a grasping claw, the flawlessly smooth and dynamically sharp edges of hewn stone polished to perfection with natural accents glinting like stars.  Linked to the legend of Seer Stones it is an object of ancient tradition, Art which has its origins in ritual and the stories we tell to make sense of the world and of ourselves.

Like many of Dilworth’s sculptural forms it is monumentally intimate and naturally ambiguous. Moon Sight-Stone could be an object of communication and sight over vast distances, a shapeshifting bird, or an entire landscape of human consciousness. What is invested in its making translates directly to the imagination of the viewer, connecting us to the impulses and contradictions that make us human.  It is intensely physical and deeply cerebral in its acknowledgement of a way of seeing and being on the earth, linked to tribal or indigenous cultures. It is carved intuitively and engineered with perseverance, the weight of stone beautifully poised and balanced, cool to the touch, lithely evasive in movement to awaken the senses. This is not a sculptural object to be passively looked at and admired, to commemorate history or glorify its maker, but to be experienced and held within, an initiation into collective human memory and to aspects of self we may well have forgotten in the blurring attention deficit of everyday life. Dilworth’s objects have extraordinary clarity of form and intention, they’re not trying to be anything; they are real rather than representational and absolutely grounded in life, death and the human condition.

Swift Kilmorack

Steve Dilworth, Swift (Dunite and Swift, 23 x 9 x13cm)

Many of Dilworth’s objects contain once living material as transitional points in awakening consciousness.  Life and death are eternal dance partners and in an intimate, hand held work like Swift (Dunite and Swift) this centre of spiritual gravity can be sensed and felt in the body. Hollows for the fingers on the underside of the object naturally fit the hands with the thumbs resting in mask-like eye sockets. The apex points towards the body with the weight of stone perfectly balanced , like an object for divining with inward directionality. The robust, masculine form feels like a recently discovered artefact from a long lost tribe, its centre of gravity resting in the collective unconscious. Plumbing the depths of the soul for recognition, this work suggests an innate connection with the timeless human need for Creativity and imagination as a source of renewal.

Throwing Object  Steve Dilworth, Throwing Object (Lignum Vitae, Leather and Bird, 13cm diameter)

Another hand held work Throwing Object (Lignum Vitae, Leather and Bird) is crafted to naturally fit into the palms, the smooth wood and smell of bound, interlaced leather brilliantly melded together. Inside is an archetypal mystery, hidden from view and aligned with the spirit. Rattle (Burr Elm, fishing line and stone pebbles) is reminiscent of Neolithic fertility objects and ritual, with slices of elm creating an open rattle, like the deep crevice of a rock or the female body. As if miraculously confronting a wooden object that has survived over thousands of years, Dilworth’s Rattle is playfully and powerfully aligned with the fertile human imagination, the idea of rebirth and the art object as a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical.

Water Skull

Steve Dilworth, Water Skull Macquette (Mixed Media for Casting, 40 x 37 x 54cm)

Many of Dilworth’s sculptural forms feel as though they are in the process of transformation or becoming. The artist’s Water Skull Macquette (Mixed Media for Casting) is crafted from the inside out, with two halves fitting beautifully together in endlessly fluid, evolutionary form. Every surface, even those we cannot see are given equal care and consideration. It is a fascinating hybrid of outer carapace in the overlapping shell-like interior and inner skeleton in a hinged, oblong outer skull. Part insect, part crustacean and part marine mammal, it is born of natural elements and could be a fragment from an ancient past or a projection of the future once global warming has transformed the planet, returning it to a primordial, aquatic swamp.  The aquiline curves invoke the elemental movement of water, whilst the solidity of the skull creates the impression of an organism built for endurance. As the model for a larger scale work, it would be wonderful to see Water Skull Macquette cast in bronze on a truly monumental scale and exhibited permanently in a public location.

Beaked Bird 2Beaked Bird 1

Steve Dilworth Beaked Bird (Bronze Ed 3 of 5, 20 x 50 x 40cm)

Two versions of Beaked Bird (Bronze Ed 3 of 5), the first in a dark bronze patina and the second finished to a golden patina, reminiscent of organic materials such as aged stone, bone or ivory, is also a transformational and highly ambiguous object. Aside from the associations of its title, the elongated beak sits seamlessly in the hollows of a rounded elliptical form; suggesting the germination of a seed, the embryo of an as yet undiscovered species or a hermaphroditic organism. The combination of masculine and feminine forms is also an intriguing feature of Venus Stone (Dunite). Poised on its side like a reclining nude, Dilworth’s tooth form with sharpened roots links to earlier forms by the artist in alabaster and granite; inspired by hawking lures and ancient fertility statues such as the Venus of Willendorf. The supremely smooth dominant curves of this Venus Stone are essentially feminine; a crescent curve feels aligned to the transformational power of lunar phases and ancient mythology. The object is innately sensual to the touch, like a caress from hip to thigh but with a predatory angularity. Run your finger along the pointed root of the tooth and there is a sonic effect, like an invocation of our most basic instincts whether hunting or hunted. The duality of nature and of human nature, both masculine and feminine, is brought to bear in this work.  It is powerful and subtle; in its soft sheen, sharpened lines and deceptive simplicity, a supremely honed object of complex human behaviour and psychology; sexual, sensual and invested in survival.

Tooth- Venus Stone

Steve Dilworth, Venus Stone (Dunite, 50 x 25 x 23cm)

There are many works in this exhibition to be savoured, enjoyed and revisited. The exquisite crafting of Dilworth’s sculptural objects, both in thought and execution, together with their presentation in the gallery space, naturally invite the viewer to make their own tactile and imaginative connections. The way that the thematic content of Cartman’s paintings and Cain’s pastels inform each other and the rich layers of association in the materials and crafting of Dilworth’s three dimensional objects make this an exceptional exhibition not to be missed.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

From The Forest To The Sea-Emily Carr in British Columbia.

1st November 2014 – 15th March 2015. Dulwich Picture Gallery

When I had discovered my subject, I sat before it some while before I touched the brush, feeling my way into it. Asking myself these questions, what attracted you to this particular subject? Why do you want to paint it, what is its core, the thing you are trying to express?  

Emily Carr

Photo of Emily Carr

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in Her Studio, 1939, silver gelatin print, Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Whenever I arrive in a new place I look for artists of all disciplines, historic and contemporary, to really come to grips with the ground I’m standing on. In 1995 I had just arrived in British Columbia on a Canadian working holiday and exploring downtown, found my way to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Noting an artist’s name in my guidebook whose work I had never seen and a floor devoted to her on the gallery map, I ventured upstairs. The moment the lift doors opened I was confronted by a face I have never forgotten, an enlarged detail from Harold Mortimer Lamb’s 1939 photographic portrait of Emily Carr in Her Studio. What struck me immediately was the artist’s powerful, resolute stare; an aged face framed by swirling brushwork, Sunshine and Tumult, the still eye of a storm raging against the intrusion of the camera. In defiance of time and gender this was a woman unapologetically direct in vision and action, arching eyebrows and steadfast, penetrating gaze forever fixed on the photographer and confronting the soul of the viewer.  As I entered the first room I felt elated at the sight of Forest, British Columbia (1931-1932, Oil on Canvas), astounded by the depth and energy of Carr’s paintings and amazed that a degree in Art History had not introduced me to her work. It was a discovery that shaped my consequent journeys through Canada; to Carr’s home and final resting place in Victoria, the Dallas Road cliffs, Beacon Hill Park and Esquimalt where she walked and sketched outdoors, to Ucluelet on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, Northern BC, Alert Bay (Cormorant Island), Haida Gwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands) and Alaska .I sought out her work in collections across Canada, her writings in second hand bookstores; Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), Growing Pains: An Autobiography (1946) The Heart of a Peacock (1953),Pause, An Emily Carr Sketchbook(1953), Hundreds and Thousands, The Journals of an Artist (1966) and spent countless hours in museums, libraries and archives trying to understand the extraordinary artist behind that formidable gaze.

I think what I also felt, but did not begin to understand until I had experienced the land, sea and forest of British Columbia for myself, was Carr’s profound affinity with Nature and her indigenous understanding of landscape. Contemporary scholars have been critical of Carr’s appropriation of Aboriginal Art and Design in her early work, reading it as part of a condescending colonial narrative of vanishing cultures. But to frame her entire output in this way is to miss something vital which was alive in her work from the beginning. All her life she strove, often at great personal cost, to understand- both as an artist and a human being in spite of her Victorian/ British colonial upbringing. There is respect and reverence in her mature work, in creating a visual language of her own, which shares a kinship with indigenous understanding of nature, environment and spirituality as a living tradition of seeing / being in the landscape. As she wrote in Klee Wyck in contemplation of Zunoqua, the wild woman of the woods; “The power that I felt was not in the thing itself but in some tremendous force behind it that the carver believed in.” This life force which Carr explored through Christianity, Theosophy and Pacific North West Coast Aboriginal beliefs is the defining characteristic and ultimate trajectory of her Art.

For Carr the forest was the Feminine personified; aspects of self, untamed, sometimes threatening, endlessly fertile and Divine. The affirmation of her palette and paint handling in this context is undeniable and although the myth of Carr looms large, her work is also a means of addressing the innate complexity of identity and belonging, particularly in a post-colonial New World environment. Throughout her life she was considered an eccentric outsider, a woman who unconventionally chose not to marry and have children, who travelled to aboriginal communities throughout the Pacific North West coast from the early 1900’s and to San Francisco, Britain and France to gain an Art education.  Until aligned with the all-male Group of Seven in Eastern Canada, Carr remained unappreciated as an artist until later life, emerging as a unique voice from the West, a Modernist way ahead of her time. Today she is embraced, though not without controversy, as a national treasure and the current exhibition of her work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery will no doubt be revelatory to many as the first dedicated exhibition of her work in the UK.

The curatorial vision of the exhibition moves consciously from “darkness to light”; deep forest to sky, revealing the evolution of Carr’s thinking in relation to her Art and the world around her. Juxtaposed with Carr’s drawings and paintings are First Nations sacred objects; Art of ritual and everyday life, which affirm a way of seeing and being in the landscape in terms of reverence, respect , understanding in the use of natural materials and continuity of ancient beliefs and traditions. Many of the objects on display are associated with the Potlatch; a North West Coast ceremonial gathering of families to announce births, give names, inherit rights and privileges,  conduct marriages  and mourn the dead. Dances, feasting and the distribution of gifts such as blankets, carved cedar boxes, food, coppers and canoes maintained relationships between clans, established rank in society and were part of an economy of giving.The Potlatch was banned by the Canadian government from 1885-1951, throughout Carr’s lifetime (1871-1945) and within the display of First Nations Art there is a tension between the intention of appreciation; the beauty and exquisite craftsmanship of this work, its complex social/spiritual/cultural meanings and the knowledge that many objects like these were confiscated by government agents or stolen, becoming part of museum collections on foreign shores, including our own.

 Emily Carr sketching on the beach

Emily Carr sketching on the beach at Tanu, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), 1912. Image F-00254, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

A 19th century Haida Raven Grease Bowl (Wood. 10.5x 25.5 x 13cm. Horniman Museum, London.) is functional, mysterious and exquisite ,with its beautifully seamless flow of carved ovoid forms and transformative masks within the body of a bird associated with all Creation. Seeing Carr’s 1931 painting Tree Trunk (Oil on Canvas) nearby immediately communicates something beyond the pictorial; a depth of purple, curtained ultramarine and vivid green; the red cedar like a human figure becoming part of the hallowed earth in bands of fluid colour and light. Like all of Carr’s mature work it conceals and reveals the great mysteries of life and being. She is not a landscape painter of trees or scenic views but grapples with creative forces within and without, going out to meet them in the forest with her “whole self”. When you look into the interior of a decaying cedar, see the erosion of wood by the ocean with its distinctive pattern of grain or the towering strength of Old Growth trees that have outlasted many human generations, there is a sense of connection with being small in relation to the world and with a reality beyond the physical. The same grain of resilient life, delineated in ovoid form in the heart of a cedar, can be seen in the abstracted designs of master Haida Artists such as Bill Reid, Charles Edenshaw and Robert Davidson, drawn directly and holistically from their environment.

A Soul Catcher; (Northern Northwest Coast, 19th Century .Bone, string and abalone shell.15cms. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.) a shamanic object intended to hold and protect the soul of an ill person until it could be returned to the body, feels like an apt symbol of the restorative aspect of human creativity ever present in Carr’s work. Her engagement with the coastal forest of British Columbia was a creative act of going deep within, beyond what she could see with her eyes, being still and prepared to listen, restoring her disassociated soul to her body in a world of strict Presbyterianism , Victorian constraint and advancing industrialisation.  Her descriptions of the forest and sea in her writings and her visual language present a human being open to the sensuous and experiential. Her writings on Art, Nature and her paintings are rapturous, heartfelt and revelatory.  Works like (Forest 1935, Oil on canvas) capture reverberations of colour and light in swathes of movement, the vertical upright of the tree at the centre of the composition; a shimmering path into the woods and ever upwards, a representation of her lifelong quest for light. In Hundreds and Thousands, the artist’s journals from 1927 to 1941, she wrote;

It seems as if these shimmering seas can scarcely bear a hand’s touch. That which moves across the water is scarcely a happening, hardly even as solid a thing as thought, for you can follow a thought. It’s more like a breath, involuntary and alive, coming and going, always there but impossible to hold onto. Oh! I want to get to that thing. It can’t be done with hands of flesh and pigments. Only the spirit can touch this. So it is with all of her paintings, Carr is an artist striving resolutely towards “God” with every mark.

The First Nations objects on display create an awareness of the spirit of place Carr tried to capture in her work, highlighting shamanic practice not as a religion but a way of seeing the world. Raven Rattle, Northern Northwest Coast, early 19th Century (Maple wood, paint, animal skin, stone and animal sinew. 14.2 x 33.2 cm. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.) is a particularly beautiful example, utilising natural materials of the Spirit. Displayed in a glass cabinet there is a distance between Western Art Historical, Ethnological or Anthropological readings of this work and its actual function as part of a living creative tradition. These are objects made, held and used by human hands, with a fluidity of design moving easily between the physical and the metaphysical, rather than Art objects separated from everyday life. The economic and spiritual wealth of the communities that made them is part of their Craft. These were qualities Carr recognised and found wanting in her own Victorian community. In her later work she recognised that the appropriation of “Indian” imagery ran counter to what she needed to cultivate in her Art and in herself. Although she perceived a kinship with Aboriginal ways of seeing, contact with the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris validated what she always believed and strove for in her Art- realisation of the Divine (or metaphysical) in Nature and within herself. “You are one of us” declared Harris. Finally in 1927 following the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art- Native and Modern at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, the “little old lady on the edge of nowhere” found her tribe, but continued to set herself apart.

Big Eagle, Skidigate

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, 76.2 x 56.7 cm , 1980.034.001 , Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Her painterly treatment of totem poles was criticised in its day for not being documentary enough and is still criticised today for its stylisation of First Nations Art. However Carr’s greatest achievement as an artist is in being uniquely herself, developing her own expressive language, grappling, as all great artists do, with the Art of her chosen discipline and what it is to be human.

The juxtaposition of Pacific Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art and Carr’s work in the exhibition is a great source of inspiration, the source of the artist beginning to explore what was most essential to her in life and Art. Carr acknowledges her struggles to come to terms with the life force of the forest and her upbringing of colonial prejudice in her autobiography Growing Pains. She acknowledges the “inner intensity” and spirituality of “Indian Art”, together with the deficiency of her own culture “schooled to see outsides only”.

Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England’s schools. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my white man’s understanding. I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were Old World heredity and ancestry as well as the Canadian environment. The new West called me, but my Old World heredity, the flavour of my upbringing, pulled me back. I had been schooled to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce.

The Indian caught first at the inner intensity of his subject, worked outward to the surfaces. His spiritual conception he buried deep in the wood he was about to carve. Then—chip! Chip! His crude tools released the symbols that were to clothe his thought—no sham, no mannerism. The lean, neat Indian hands carved what the Indian mind comprehended.

Emily Carr, Indian Church

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas, Overall: 108.6 x 68.9 cm (42 3/4 x 27 1/8 in.) ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970, 69/118. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Although the attribution of value is clothed in colonial condescension, referring to “crude tools” and “neat Indian hands”, Carr also reveals the contradictions and complexities of being Canadian born, of the “new West” and also the product of “Old World hereditary”. The Victoria Carr grew up in was distinctly and proudly British, yet the sheer force of her personality demanded a deeper state of connection with her beloved West. Carr’s painting Indian Church (1929, Oil on canvas) which positions the stark white rectangular architecture against the lush green growth of the forest presents this essential conflict. The cold geometric confinement of missionary zeal and advancing “civilization” is aligned with the crosses in the graveyard whilst the layered forest, towering over the church is overwhelmingly vibrant, fecund and spiritually charged. Contrary to the Canadian government’s policies of assimilation at the time, the dynamic “vortices of natural form” are distinctly and resiliently alive in comparison to the invading architecture. Carr also makes the connection between the life force of the forest and the evolution her painting/way of seeing in terms of movement:

Movement is the essence of being. When a thing stands still and says ‘finished’ it dies. There isn’t such a thing as completion in this world, that would mean stop. Painting is striving to express life. If there is no movement in the painting then it is dead paint.

Emily Carr, Tree spiralling upwards

Emily Carr, Tree (spiralling upward), 1932 – 1933, oil on paper, 87.5 x 58.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.63, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Works like Tree Spiralling Upward (1932-33, Oil on paper) are the visual expression of this imperative, a spontaneous and joyous response to the Divine in nature, a quality also seen in the poetry of Walt Whitman and English Romantic poets that Carr loved. The looser paint handling and vibrant palette of her mature style, influenced by exposure to Post Impressionism and Fauvism in Paris, the work of Kandinsky, Picasso and Braque in New York, together with the post-Cubist work of American artist Mark Tobey and the integrity of abstraction in First Nations Art, give Carr’s paintings a distinctive edge. In Europe she studied with Henry Gibb, the New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins and the Scottish Colourist J.D.Fergusson, who she said encouraged his students to see “rhythm in nature”. Another Untitled drawing– formalised tree forms with totemic details (1929-1930, Charcoal on paper), with its pure strength of line and overlapping organic forms, conveys a felt sense of depth, dynamism and protection Carr found in the forest. Carr’s interest in Asian Art, with its calligraphic brushwork capturing the essential spirit of subjects in nature, is aligned with her technique of using oils on paper diluted with gasoline to respond immediately to the energy of earth, trees, sea and sky when working in the field. A quality also found in the assured, confident marks of her ink and charcoal drawings and in the formal design of her compositions.

Carr never fully embraced abstraction; I clung to earth and her dear shapes, her density, her herbage, her juice. I wanted her volume, and I wanted to hear her throb. In works like Kitwancool Totems (1928, Oil on canvas) and Silhouette No2 (1930-31, Oil on canvas) the sensuous curves of human figures are made solid as the earth or seen in stark silhouette against the glow of twilight, a God-like hand outstretched over the water, canoe and all of life’s journeys.

Within Carr’s Art and writings there is a hidden beauty, seen only in the light reflected by forest, sea and sky. In many ways this feels like her core self; the unconscious, all she kept hidden beneath an obstinate, formidable exterior, in the crafting of her own fictions and in female sexuality never fully expressed in outer life. In BC Forest (1930, Oil on paper), one of the most beautiful works in the exhibition, the palette of black and greys tonally unite rocks and layers of canopy in a vision of deep stillness and contemplation. The light is within and beyond, a feint glow of perceptive Truth at the heart of the composition; an exposed mark of paper whose light spills into the viewer’s foreground.

It is impossible not to be moved by the image or the human hand/ mind that made it. Like all of Carr’s best works we reimagine the world and ourselves in relation to it in the act of seeing. She inspires connection, understanding and heightened awareness of Self and of the World.

Everything is green, everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours that you had not noticed come out timidly or boldly.

Look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind…each knowing what to do, each demanding its own right on earth.

self-portrait

Emily Carr, Self-portrait, 1938-1939, Oil on wove paper, mounted on plywood, 85.5 x 57.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Gift of Peter Bronfman, 1990, Photo © NGC. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Many Liken Carr to one of her most celebrated paintings; Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935, Oil on canvas.), a singular line of lone pine standing tall and reaching toward the heavens, fragile and enduringly resilient. Throughout her life she was acutely aware of her isolation;

I don’t fit anywhere, so I’m out of everything and I ache and ache. I don’t fit in the family and I don’t fit in the church and I don’t fit in my own house as a landlady. It’s dreadful-like a game of musical chairs. I’m always out, never get a seat in time; the music always stops first.

Fortunately for us, Carr had the strength and conviction to resoundingly create her own music. In the final room of the exhibition in works like Sky (1935-1936, Oil on Paper) and Strait of Juan de Fuca (1936, Oil on paper) we see the sea becoming sky, a sense of communion with the infinite and in the vibration of every mark an ever expanding universe.

www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Emily Carr at Vancouver Art Gallery;

http://www.museevirtuel.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/emily_carr/en/index.php

Play Like A Child, But Seriously.

Whims-of-Desire

Alan Macdonald, Whims of Desire (2014, 44′ x 42′, Oil on Linen)

I had a long awakening dream-at the end there was a horse standing in a tree- a search party with dogs stood below and the dogs pled with the horse to come down from the tree, but the horse tried and failed, saying that he couldn’t as he was born in that tree -it was only later a friend said- that’s you. If you’re born to be an artist then that’s you in the tree.

Alan Macdonald.

What takes many artists a lifetime to learn is to be themselves and no one else; an imperative that takes courage, conviction and sheer determination in an Art World driven by artistic personas and shooting stars. Many artists produce what they think will bring them “success”, denying the authenticity and unique vision that actually creates a sell out show. Walking your own path and possessing the uncompromising willingness to go where the work and process dictate creates a special kind of energy in the making of Art. It is immediately palpable, sensed and felt directly by the audience regardless of the Age or discipline and the primary source of connection between the artist, the viewer and the work. What is immediately apparent on meeting Alan Macdonald in his studio is his profound focus and boundless enthusiasm, fully invested in creative process. Each new work is a puzzle to be solved, constantly striving towards greater awareness, fluency and distillation of language. What sets him apart in the world of Contemporary Art is his intense curiosity and joyful humour, testing his own limits as an artist and what the confines of a two dimensional painted surface can be. His latest body of work marks a significant milestone in the artist’s oeuvre, a level of mature integration of style, technique and unconscious obsessions which have consistently shaped his practice for over 30 years.

For Alan Macdonald Life/ Art is a serious, invigorating game of discovery, shared wholeheartedly with the viewer. The refreshing and expansive quality of his work lies in its joyous engagement with the imagination and free association. This openness in relation to self-awareness and to the world is invested with a childlike sense of wonder and possibility. “Each painting wants to be something; my job is to find what that is.” “I give [the viewer] the actors, the props and the set”, actively encouraging the audience to be their own Director and make their own connections with the work. Macdonald invites us into the playground of Art and into his paintings; to bring ourselves to them in a way that is liberating and free from cultural austerity. He encourages us to access the child within and to trust our adult selves enough to create our own meanings and narratives within and beyond the frame.

A Monk With a Skunk

Alan Macdonald, A Monk With A Skunk (2014,Oil on Board, 18′ x 24′)

Although humour and beauty in the treatment of his subjects is often the initial hook, what keeps me returning to this artist’s work is the multi-layered nature of the exploration, plumbing the depths of our hidden selves. “Each protagonist has a purpose” and finds their own ways of stepping outside the picture plane. The primitive, instinctual, childlike aspects of ourselves appear in Macdonald’s work and process like Freud’s analogy of the Id as a horse, with “superior strength to that of the rider”.  The rider (The Ego) on horseback holds the impulsive horse in check, but must also acknowledge the spirit and strength of force (or state of being) which ultimately carries him/her forward. The integration of design, deliberation and instinct in this latest body of work acknowledges the importance of this creative dynamic. Letting go of the reigns may bring an artist temporary fear and uncertainty, but it is also a way for the maker and their audience to experience movement, growth and go further than the conscious mind would ever sanction.

Macdonald never begins his work with a final image in the mind as a foregone conclusion. His sketchbooks are as fluid as his approach to board, canvas or linen, a fertile ground for ideas to surface in drawings which are erased and revisited over time; creating a new moment when a combination of elements or something emerging out of the ground takes the work in a another direction.  An essential part of the creative process is engagement with underlying thoughts, feelings and motivations which may not be brought into conscious awareness until the composition or body of work is complete. Surprise and discovery are as much a part of creating the work as seeing it. Macdonald characteristically brings objects of modernity, memory and history into play with the human figure to create multiple pathways of interpretation across time. High Art, Contemporary Design, Theatre and Craft are equals in his compositions and framing. Although there are elements of the Surreal in his work; in the juxtaposition of elements and objects out of time and place, it is not Surrealist and resists such definitions.

“You’ve got to let it flow and catch up afterwards. It feels like your unconscious is the more intelligent side. I always have this inner dialogue- like its saying; ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ and the conscious side is going ‘wait, wait- I don’t understand!’ (Laughing) With opposites I’m thinking – can I get away with that and make it visually work within my language. The first Van Dyke figure on a Vespa was full of life, saying something so simply and directly. When you come to paint the bike and her- they have to work together and be in the same painting. If I paint the Vespa exactly, all gleaming and precise it will look like it isn’t meant to be there.  Magritte said it’s very easy to be a Surrealist by putting a lobster on a phone but it’s much more poetic to place an egg inside a birdcage. It’s coming up with something special that isn’t just quirky or obvious. I worry over paintings-I say to myself, is that right? But I really believe in taking a risk sometimes. Put restrictions on yourself and play with the boundaries, without restrictions there is chaos. If it gets predictable, throw in a spanner or a grenade!”

The-Candy-Man

Alan Macdonald, The Candy Man, (2014, Oil on Linen, 75′ x 85′)

Understanding the categorisation and hierarchy of Western Painting and its canon of Masters, Macdonald visually acknowledges his artistic heroes like Titian, Ingres, Goya or Van Dyke but also throws a grenade, actively subverting our expectations of how the female nude, portrait, self-portrait, landscape or history painting should behave. The artist’s palette and glazed surface of his paintings, which ironically employ a technique used in restoration, create the depth and feeling of an Old Master, but with fresh marks that resist definition and encourage the viewer to complete the work.  The historic cloak of pigment and glaze, like the costumes and armoury worn by his figures are part of a visual inheritance, but they are also part of the eternally human game of trying to come to terms with Now; who we are, why we’re here and how we see ourselves. Humour is a key element in Macdonald’s work, together with a lifelong investment in his craft; always working to be present and receptive to the moment of inspiration when it comes.

“In the studio I’m playing but in an advanced way. I don’t believe in standing still. I keep learning ways to keep the painting fresh and painterly. My process has changed radically; I used to under paint bright colours and then paint it out with black and bring it back out. It’s like when you change a face- not in a photographic way but a painterly way, like you’ve just given it a soul. You have to keep an open mind- I come into the studio in the morning with a sense of adventure. I have to find a way to work quickly so I can capture that energy- if I plotted and planned for a week it just wouldn’t happen for me. I can plan a big painting then the morning I go to start it the Id will go’ hey (He whistles) over here!’ and I always go with that. If you’re a little bit scared of your ideas that’s healthy-if it’s not happening with a painting then take a risk…

I had some success with my abstract paintings- you make a mark and then respond to that mark in wild abandon- then I controlled it a bit more- using texture, primer to pre-prime an area- rub back through, using accidental marks and layers as leading elements. Abstraction taught me about following my feelings and not having to have a reason before you start. Some of my best works have happened because I don’t really know why, but I know that I want to.  The response was childlike- immediate and honest.  If you start painting about painting you need to get a life!  When I go into my studio I go inwards and see what I find on the journey. When go out to a film or read they naturally filter in and eventually they pop back out again- your subconscious picks and chooses what it wants. I’ll have this! I find that really exciting- you experience the world, be inquisitive, look into things. I love Brian Cox’s programmes- he can say something which is hard to get your head around and then he’ll do something with sand- while he’s saying it he’s got a smile and then he stops and he’s dead serious.”

Beyond-the-Pale

Alan Macdonald, Beyond The Pale (2014, Oil on Board, 13′ x 24′)

“Play like a child, but seriously” is a way of being shaped by the artist’s formative years in Malawi, South East Africa. Grounded in indigenous ways of seeing relationships between the natural world, spirituality and human perception, Macdonald’s vision as an artist is defined by natural fluency between the physical and metaphysical. Creating his own worlds through painting, aspects of self such as courage can emerge instinctually, often in animal form. There is a dance of integration between primitive, instinctual elements feeding the work and civilizing structures of domed confinement such as hooped dresses or architecture which also appear in his paintings. Macdonald’s work is created “beyond the pale” with a clear sense of a dominion of order and authority, knowing within himself that a much more exciting and fertile territory lies beyond.  The uncontrollable and the highly cultivated are marriage partners in his paintings, a relational balance of captivating tension seen throughout his work.

“I was very privileged in my upbringing”, he says, describing leaving Malawi for Scotland as a teenager as “the closing of a lovely bubble of my childhood.” Macdonald powerfully invokes this state of child-like reverie and adventure in his mature work. As a child growing up in Africa with no television and scarce access to consumer goods, immersion in imaginative play and the natural environment fired the artist’s burgeoning creativity. The freedom to disappear for the whole day to play with other children in the village, absorbed in games that became ever more inventive and complex, left a lasting imprint. “There was also the Majestic cinema- they did a Saturday kids screening- everyone was shouting and cheering, if there was a pirate film on you’d be fighting all the way home.” Visiting the UK on leave with his family every two years, everyday products, new cars, ice-cream vans and Pop music amazed and delighted him. “A light went on at 12 or 13 that didn’t go out”.  In Africa Macdonald was also introduced to the idea of Craft as the integrity and pride invested in handmade objects; in the unexpected beauty of recycled tin cars and woven materials, the sandblasted patina of old fashioned coke bottles and the pristine tailoring of hand sewn clothing which shaped the young artist’s conception of making.

“So much of what we buy now is machine made-but there is a need for man-made, tactile things- it’s why people buy antiques.  They can get a wonderfully straight surface but it’s not quite straight. I want my paintings to feel like they are handmade- there are mistakes if you look at a background or when I’ve changed my mind. Then on the other side I love modern things.  I know a lot of people don’t like Jeff Koons, but the first time I saw ‘Balloon Dog’ I thought it was fantastic- it has such a lust for life- It’s like a child jumping up and down saying ‘Look at me! I’m Happy, I’m Happy!’ I’m sure there is another side which is calculating, but I loved the piece he made for the Venice Biennale-the big puppy with its tongue hanging out made of flowers that eventually withered, it was stunning.”

Leaving Malawi on the cusp of adulthood, just as he was becoming aware of the societal boundaries that existed as part of the country’s colonial past, has kept the artist’s memories of childhood liberty alive.  It is this naiveté, sense of gratitude and joie de vivre that enter into the rendering of brightly coloured packaging or the natural cohabitation of human figures, animals and objects in Macdonald’s mature work. Reflecting on his passage from childhood to adulthood, the artist described seeing a more recent photograph of the family home in Malawi, surrounded by razor wire- a life and world view defined by “mistrust” he was fortunate to escape. What the young man carried with him to the UK was the vital spark of imagination (a quality which in adulthood is all too often driven underground) and the enduring conviction that an artist was the only thing he could possibly be.

Drawn to visual expression from an early age, in “dusty colonial libraries” he discovered books on Reynolds, Whistler and Da Vinci, free from the institutional framing of museum and gallery halls. In Da Vinci he saw not unattainable genius, but a growing capacity within himself; “Da Vinci analysed everything, he took it apart to really look into things deeply”. This quality can be seen in Macdonald’s adult paintings, applied to visual language and the compartmentalisation of dark reliquary spaces in works like Guru (1993) and Portrait of a Saint (1999). The dark grounds of his paintings are fields of unconscious retrieval and spaces of awakening conscience, carrying positive rather than negative associations. “When I was a child living in Africa, I was outside on a night lit by the moon and feeling a little scared, I stepped from the light into a dark shadow. The darkness wrapped itself around me and fear was replaced by an understanding that I was being protected.” 

03  Hell Hole

Alan MacDonald, Hell Hole.

04. Minotaur At Rest

Alan MacDonald, Minotaur At Rest.

Recent works such as Hell Hole (2014, Oil on board 21″ x 16″) and Minotaur At Rest (2014, Oil on Board, 10″ x 9″) return to the idea of dark recesses of the labyrinthine mind and what can be brought forth in a Bosch-like stream of consciousness towards greater awareness. “After the Minotaur- I did this- a painting that I just stopped working on- (Hell Hole)- originally it was a woman with a dress, one figure came out- then another and another- they just took over. It’s a bit of an uncontrolled and unruly painting but there’s a lot in there…the nailed section at the top might come into the arches and make them more tactile.” Macdonald’s framing of imagery; using proscenium arches, split composition, theatrical curtains and mental shelves ,where protagonists or objects in the foreground are about to fall into the spectator’s own space, create an exciting sense of shifting perspective. Like the image of the disappearing staircase in Hell Hole, Macdonald’s paintings encourage us to explore the labyrinthine spaces within our own minds. The repetition of circular forms also appear as threshold spaces; the burnt hole revealing a dark ground beneath, the banjo rim, the dark emotional hole of the lone chair and neon sign, the lever and pull cord to the basement of marauding figures and the white balls tumbling forth from slot machine model architecture. The paint handling in the painting’s furthest recesses is Goya-like, bold marks which allow us to imagine a Hell Hole of our own making. Even within this darkness however, there is a torch-like match- aligned with an angel who reaches towards it. The burn hole leading to the dark space beneath the painting becomes a vital act of seeing.

02. Guardian of AngelsAlan Macdonald-Guardian of Angels.

This idea of the dark ground of ourselves is beautifully distilled in another recent painting, Guardian of Angels (2015, Oil on Board, 21″ x 18”). Here the bisection of the image seen through a stage-like archway serves as a self-reflexive space. The central male protagonist stands to the right, in a tonal recess that suggests movement between different fields of perception. There is incredible depth as you move around the painting, the glazed dark space behind the figure expanding beyond all expectation. Our sense of perspective is not created by the Renaissance style chequered floor or an idyllic Arcadian landscape but by a composition of elements which are endlessly fluid. The calm demeanour of the “guardian” in historic costume, with comic ruff, the sandals of a pilgrim, gun, bell and bugle stands guard at the window threshold to a landscape which is itself loaded with shadows of ambiguity. The red rose above him feels like steady devotion to his task, guarding the angel or spirit of exploration moving into a space within and beyond the picture plane. The cut stump in the foreground and empty hollow plinth of equal height seem to regard each other on a stage of interior projections.

Villain-of-the-Peace

Villain of the Peace (2015, Oil on board 27″ x 24″) utilises a cutaway stone shelf beneath the horned male protagonist, a form mirrored in the cuckoo clock-like cavity in the centre of his chest, reflecting the interior foundation of the painting. Latin and modern text is incorporated into the ornate pattern of his Elizabethan costume which conceals as much as it reveals; a player with an action man type cord pull, AK47 at his hip and crushed can in hand in florid, theatrical dress. Standing above a well from which the assembled characters have come to drink, UFO beaming down on a Book of Retribution and background fires blazing, the central protagonist occupies shifting ground between comedy and destruction. Beneath the surface of the painting and the protagonist’s feet is the fluid, emotionally conductive element of water. The reassuring framing of stage like curtains contain the scene, but the wellspring at the base of the painting remains endlessly expansive. In A Simple Test of Faith (2014, Oil on Board, 17” x 36”) a male protagonist in cardinal’s dress sits in a space which creates its own shadow. The bisected composition with a landscape of historic exploration, attendant jaguar and Memento Mori skull is tensely balanced between humour and danger.  Macdonald playfully places the protagonist’s hat on the ledge of the painting and dares him to retrieve it. In the game of painting it’s isn’t a choice between Truth or Dare, but both simultaneously.

A-Simple-Test-of-Faith

Alan Macdonald, A Simple Test of Faith

Early paintings like Portrait of an Anarchist (1996, Oil on Board, 10’ x 32’) a panel of upside down images; Still Life, Portrait, a tree in the Landscape and vertical cloud/ horizon line. (Labelled 4, II, one, three beneath) actively play with expectations about genre and the snobbery of “knowing about Art”, a perception which is so often a barrier to honesty and enjoyment. Instinctively the audience, upon seeing what looks like a sequence of Old Masters, turned on their head with jumbled numerical hierarchies and script, understand the joke. The artist is definitely having fun, but there is also something going on beneath the entertaining punch line. Seeing an exhibition of work by Joseph Banks, Macdonald was inspired by the unexpected colour, expression and abstraction of dashed lines and connecting labels suspended in space. Rather than definitive labelling of diagrams, the scientific expedition and visual exploration of this living material presented an imaginative open book. Text often operates as a kind of inner recess or an abstract in Macdonald’s work, rather than labels which define or ascribe absolute meaning. Like the distillation of words in poetry which create natural spaces around lines and stanzas open to interpretation, the visual elements in MacDonald’s paintings are similarly composed.

The evolution of the artist’s work has been very much about letting visual elements out of their boxes of definition, categorisation and genre. When text is introduced into his paintings it is imaginative rather than instructive or didactic, seen in the emotive resonance of song lyrics or in Bird Brain (2010, Oil on Linen 70 x 60) as a stream of seemingly useless but associative information. “With Bird Brain it was so exciting-like what are you going to write? I found this wonderful miscellany- you can get the ingredients for a McDonald’s hamburger next to something completely different and it fires up your brain with opposites-just completely random things. It was free- It felt great to be able to put anything on a painting and still have it work as a composition.” This sense of freedom also extends to objects, imagery and variations of scale within a painting. “Like (panorama) photographs that don’t quite meet- the joins in the middle are exciting”, part of a shifting ground of perception, the artist consistently playing with pictorial boundaries.

Spaceman

Alan Macdonald, Spaceman

In a recent work like Spaceman (2014, 15’ x 16’, Oil on Board) there is no need for the artist to turn the painting upside down, gravity defying weightlessness has become an integral part of the artist’s language. The face who confronts us, starched white collar, ties and hair drifting in the timeless atmosphere of all human enquiry, is suitably enigmatic. His expression is like many of Macdonald’s protagonists, a subtle combination of emotions; of steadfast contemplation, an almost quizzical eyebrow and a burgeoning smile which we sense might break into laughter in the next moment. Surrounded by rubbery Haribo sweets, the egg in his hand is a comic twist at the heart of artistic creation. The depictions of consumer products in the artist’s paintings are comfortingly familiar but they are also intrinsically painterly. “When I’ve looked into a cartoon or packaging or just being in the supermarket- its striking colour and pictorial elements next to text- they’re like the Dutch ruffs, it’s so dramatic and offsets the flesh of the face…A can of coke is a complete leveller- it can be held by someone on the street or a film actress. Placing products is a levelling process, it is also the tension and dramatic effect of colour and texture; metal next to glass next to wood, they’re visually exciting- the writing as well, I find writing beautiful.  The Rebirth of Venus– Coca Cola sign behind her head- it has such an impact, brings the painting to life.”

The-Elders-Surprised-by-Susanna

Alan Macdonald, The Elders Surprised by Susannah.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Macdonald’s work is his depiction of the female figure as a uniquely self-possessed central protagonist, often deep in her own thoughts. The female nude in Art, traditionally defined by the male gaze, objectification and display is subverted by the strength of the Feminine in Macdonald’s paintings. Interestingly his female nudes often sell to women. His treatment of a popular biblical subject in the History of Western Art; Susannah and the Elders (painted by male artists for centuries including Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Rubens and Picasso) is characteristically given a humorous twist. However Macdonald’s The Elders Surprised by Susannah (2009, Oil on Board, 19’ x 15’) also delivers a feminine force to be reckoned with.  She is not a woman passively unaware that she is being looked at or overcome by the threat of lecherous advances.  Often treatment of this subject places the viewer in the position of voyeur, but here we witness Susannah centre stage, emerging luminously from the dark ground, head turned, sights set on those spying on her beyond the picture plane.  The gun she holds is level with her head and equally illuminated- her bent knee and coyly curled toes a pivot for the idea that her poise isn’t to display her nakedness or to conceal her shame, but to take a better aim the next second and take out those who have disrespected her. Her hold on the gun and trigger suggests she’s shot it before and this idea is a counterfoil to her embodiment as a passive object of beauty and chaste morality. Instead of waiting for an ancient narrative in the form of Daniel to uncover the truth and rescue her, Macdonald’s Susannah reveals her own truth in a moment of discovery, being seen as present in her own body and mind. The image is strikingly contemporary, immediately humorous and intriguingly knowing.

Black-Betty

Alan Macdonald, Black Betty (2006, Oil on Linen, 45′ x 36′)

Macdonald visibly acknowledges “the female side of Creativity”, powerfully present in paintings such as his Black Betty series, Queen of the South, Divas Don’t Run, Honky Tonk Woman and A Dame With No Shame. The artist describes these feminine protagonists as elements of self “responsive to feeling”, “unafraid”, “unashamed”, courageous and challenging. “I often put firearms in –people can take them literally- but I mean for them to empower, like Honky Tonk Woman with a pistol on her dress, it just means don’t insult this woman and expect nothing to happen. The feminine side is strong in me- if I’m painting a figure that’s an inspiration she can be quite aloof. I feel inspiration is like that.  It’s like she’ll turn up and go ‘Alright, I’ll turn up just this once!’-‘Well thank you I’ve been sitting here for weeks and now you turn up?!’(laughing). She’s a bit begrudging but when she does show up its great.”

Like Jung’s idea of the shadow self (anima for the male and animus for the female, both with positive/ negative aspects and linked to the collective unconscious) the female protagonists who take centre stage in the artist’s paintings are active triggers for development and creative evolution. One of my most important paintings was Black Betty (2006) to officially come back to the darkness in my paintings- and she was the Goddess of dark paintings! She was standing there staring straight at me through her dark glasses! I did 3 or 4 Black Bettys just because I couldn’t paint anything else. She’s in here.” In more recent work like One Singer One Song (2015, Oil on Linen, 30″ x 24″) there is a feeling of expansion; the central female protagonist climbing onto the plinth, sweeping away a model architecture of being, ready for her unique voice to be heard and explored in future paintings.

01  One Singer One  Song

Alan Macdonald, One Singer One Song.

Macdonald’s persistently inquisitive nature, his humour, infectious enthusiasm and sheer bloody mindedness have resulted in a liberating distillation of language in this latest body of work.

“I do the work to understand, to work something out- if I can do it in an entertaining way that’s great. It’s about awareness. That’s the most important thing and feel I understand myself better. There is also the expression, the human aspect. Like borrowing from Muybridge’s woman up a ladder with buckets, that one frame, the moment where she puts the buckets down, her expression is like ‘for God’s sake!’(laughing) -that gets me.” Although MacDonald’s paintings are deeply personal, significantly his work rises above the merely self-referential. The humour and playfulness of his imagery isn’t the sum total of the work, after you’ve stopped laughing there is plenty of substance to be drawn into with each successive viewing. They are paintings meant to be lived with over lifetimes.

The-Garden-of-Knowledge

Alan Macdonald, The Garden of Knowledge.

Tipping its hat to Arcimboldo’s 16th Century heads made of flowers, fruit and vegetables, The Garden of Knowledge (2014, Oil on Board 24″ x 20″), depicts a portrait bust of a man sporting a cap made of flowers, who “still manages to maintain his dignity” and “has a little bit of knowledge to impart”. The white ruff he wears has been turned into a kind of pinball mechanism, white pearls of metaphorical wisdom hatched from his head, falling into the foreground and spilling into the viewer’s space. The colour of his costume mirrors the red breast of the robin to his left, suspended in flight. There is delicacy, vulnerability and poignancy in the presence of the bird and in the nuances of facial expression which meet the viewer’s gaze, shifting before our eyes as we go deeper into the painting and the emotional complexities and contradictions of what it is to be human.

The level of maturity, integration and engagement in Macdonald’s paintings is quite extraordinary, testament to an artist bringing all of his understanding, energy and passion to bear in his latest body of work and always striving to do better.

 “I’m very stubborn, I won’t give up. You can have the most terrible time some days but then I get up and start over again. There are always things that you need to improve but it’s also good to know the things that you’re good at. When I left Art School I knew I had a mountain to climb, that it is 99% hard work. I dug in for the long term.  I cut away all the rope bridges, I was offered teaching at different colleges but didn’t take any.  When things are really tough it makes you confront yourself, there’s a cliff edge back there and I need to get better. You say to yourself, I can’t compromise what I do but I can get better at what I do. I’ve learnt to say I can’t do that, but I can do this… and bring people on board. When I finish a body of work 2 or 3 really stick out above the rest and they always sell because people detect that so I thought –what would happen if you got a higher percentage up to that level and beyond? I just dug in and after a while you think-wow I couldn’t have done that last year and it then gets very exciting, because all these doors are flying open and that’s what keeps me going-the paintings I haven’t done that I want to do… the difficult ones are important because they allow you to move forward- wanting to get technically better and better and getting deeper intellectually into the process- starting to recognise things much sooner. Like David Sylvester saying to Francis Bacon; ‘You used to destroy a lot of your early work but you don’t so much anymore’- it was a thorny question, he was challenging him and Francis Bacon said; (narrowing his eyes and imitating Bacon’s distinctive voice) ‘I like to think I’m getting better!’ (laughing). He always said the right thing! I feel the same, as you get older you get better – but there’s also a side of me that pushes too hard. Years later you can push further and make the thing work.

Paint what you want to paint- don’t compromise, it’s that simple….Go back to where you were as a child. On a bad day all the demons get on board and doubt sets in- you think you were wrong. So I say to myself when you had no art education or anything else what did you really want to do? There’s your answer.”

www.alanmacdonald.net

All images reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Alan Macdonald is currently exhibiting at REALITY: Modern and Contemporary British Painting. Sainsbury Centre for the Arts, Norwich until 1st March 2015.

The Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition, The Mound, Edinburgh, May-June 2015.

and Kilmorack Gallery, By Beauly, Inverness-shire. 19th June- 1st August 2015.