WILL MACLEAN 27 February – 26 March 2016, IMAG.
Storm-Bird Harbinger by Will Maclean, No7 in a series of 12 collages and poems; A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.
With due attention, everything is song. John Burnside, Song of a Storm-wave.
I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Will Maclean recently, coinciding with the opening of his latest touring exhibition; Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (IMAG). Developed in association with Art First, London and An Lanntair, Stornoway, the show contains striking new work including his collaboration with poet John Burnside; A Catechism of the Laws of Storms and wonderful examples of retrospective works drawn from public and private collections.
There is something seamless and powerfully evocative in Will Maclean’s work that seems to emerge from the collective unconscious, deep below the Plimsoll line. Objects dredged from a vast ocean of human consciousness are potent triggers of memory and narratives, woven in the mind of the artist and the imagination of the viewer. Maclean’s Art is as grounded as it is profound; borne of a Craft of making, a tactile tradition integral to life on and by the sea, part of the artist’s bloodline and inheritance. Described as “artist laureate” of the Highlands and Islands, Maclean’s work has always grappled with the poetics of visual language; sensed and felt in the natural environment he grew up in and woven into the rhythm of sailor’s knots, binding organic and man-made materials together in his work. The skills of an artist, visual poet, engineer and mariner are finely honed in his box constructions, drawings, collages, screen prints, sculptural installations and monumental land based works. His assemblages of objects cast ashore on eternal tides of human history feel strangely comforting; part of an archetypal inheritance of mythologies collectively shared. It’s this transcendental quality of the specifically local and deeply personal, expanded to the universal which distinguishes and elevates MacLean’s work. Having left a life at sea and “swallowed the anchor”, his practice is indigenous in the fullest sense of the word; bringing a deep, reverent understanding of the history, folklore and mythologies of the tribe, together with an intimate knowledge of the physical environment to all his visual and sculptural work. Maclean’s practice of assemblage and collage creates its own particular Surrealism; a heightened awareness in bringing objects together across time, melding two and three dimensional techniques in a fluid exploration of individual identity and our collective selves.
Left to right: Memory Board (Mixed media and found materials) and Winter, North Atlantic (2014, Painted wood and resin, 124 x 105 x 5cm) by Will Maclean. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.
Winter, North Atlantic (2014, Painted wood and resin, 124 x 105 x 5cm) is an intensely powerful example, rendered with all the artist’s understanding and “due attention”. The surface itself is exquisite, a fine gradient horizon of steel hue and an inlaid, mouth like tomb, striated and metallic as the taste of blood. The core depth of this sculpted surface has an aerial, God-like perspective, like that of a receding cargo hold; part reliquary, part refuge for the unconscious self. The oxidization of natural processes and flow of crimson are framed and held within what feels like a monumental expanse of richly textured, dark ground. The bend of wood warped by ocean waves and floating text surface and subside in a fluid interplay between two and three dimensions. This is how mind and memory work and one of the joys of experiencing Maclean’s Art is identification with what it is to be human; the mystery of what is known and what can be sensed in the inky depths or brilliant white illumination of his carefully layered grounds. Often drawn marks are part of this framed foundation into which Maclean places assembled and hallowed objects. Like an ancient explorer of unchartered waters, the artist casts his nets deep; divining, navigating, visualising pathways of meaning and narratives, drawing the viewer compellingly into the work.
One of Maclean’s mixed media box constructions Fladday Reliquary, part of the IMAG collection, is a particularly beautiful example. The bone white delicacy of a bird skull is framed and held by charcoal fired wood, rusted hooks and lineages disappearing into the base of the construction. The stark tonality of found materials and layered recesses lead the viewer further into the work with each successive viewing. It is a shame that this work and others in the IMAG collection are not on permanent display as part of the visual culture of the region. Like Maclean’s creative excavation of our collective archeology – if you want to come into contact with the visual traditions of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd then even in 2016 the viewer/ audience still needs to go digging. This work ought to be part of a permanent display, a publicly visible cultural statement which exists in other cities the world over. Go to Spain for example and you won’t find Picasso, Goya or Miro permanently hidden in storage, visible only when a touring exhibition illuminates their significance. In cities like Barcelona, Madrid or Amsterdam, Art as a reflection of Culture is resoundingly present, part of how the city, region and country sees itself, acknowledged internationally. The quality of this exhibition and the nature of its content present a compelling argument for celebration of the continuity of Scottish Visual Culture, confronting difficult but essential questions about historical precedents of cultural ownership in the process.
Maclean’s work has always engaged with this visual tradition directly through the Craft of making. Memory Board (Mixed media and found materials) is a poignant example, the fragment of a life boat both literally and metaphorically. In a progression of thought, materials and tonal submersion this piece feels like an anchor of the soul, with memories of men and fishing boats flanking either side of its triangulated apex. The movement from dark to light feels both grounded and aspirational, a monumental fragment, worn by time and the elements; weathered driftwood, riveted copper oxide metal and fragile human handwriting articulating the work. There is a sense of cultural artefacts of loss and resilience created from the combination of hand crafted and organic materials. MacLean’s handling of found materials, instinctive care and devotional reverence convey very powerfully emotional loss but also the strength of a timeless living tradition, reimagining the world. This is also invoked in Maclean’s Rudder Guardians (1999, Mixed Media), totemic figures in a progression of black, red, blue/green and white, guardians of the soul’s journey through and beyond this life, figures of protection aligned with the steerage of self-awareness and determination. These starkly linear, elongated sculptures and the shadows they cast on the gallery wall are Aboriginal and universal in their immediate, visceral presence. They are powerfully, symbolically present, spear-like in their inner trajectory and equally mysterious in the long shadows they cast, suggesting human drives of creative need, protection and social cohesion which universally define us as a species. At base we will always need Art and stories to make sense of ourselves; the skill of the artist is in initiating those connections so that we can remember. This shifting perception is part of the fabric of MacLean’s Art in terms of his creative process and in the act of seeing.
Nomad Trace by Will Maclean (2011, mixed media construction, two panels, each 122 x 244 x 5cm.) Image by kind permission of Art First, London.
The artist’s imperative to explore this territory of mind can be seen and felt in Nomad Trace (2011, mixed media construction, two panels, each 122 x 244 x 5cm.) which creates a sense of an entire artic landscape in the shimmering Northern light of layered pigment and beeswax, icy blue emerging from the monumental white expanse of the diptych. The panels linked by a drawn circumference feel like interior maps. The tracery of form, drawn marks and inner framed recesses of the panels containing totemic vertebrae which emerge, dissolve and recede like melting ice into infinite white; a synthesis of Nature and a human eye and mind perceiving it. How you’re drawn into this work and the mythology of the Northern landscape creates a place of stillness within, an imaginative territory that the viewer is free to explore, led by ancient symbols of journeying between conscious and unconscious states of awareness.
Atlantic Messengers-Hirta (1998, mixed media, 158 x 52 x 31cm) by Will Maclean. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.
One of my favourite works is the sculptural installation Atlantic Messengers- Sula Sgeir, Hirta and Fulmarus (1998, mixed media, each 158 x 52 x 31cm) which have a figurative human presence, like Classical Feminine Graces, the three Moirai or a chorus bearing witness to the tragedy of evacuation. Containing enshrined objects of cultural acknowledgement and remembrance, cast and recast in resin, darkly framed and elevated on plinths, Maclean’s “St Kilda Ladies” contain personal memories and collective associations with life, death and renewal. The cast guillemot eggs and boat forms are historically laden with narratives, a penny for the mail boat and a coin for the boatman on the final journey. To me they have always felt like guardians of an underworld of burgeoning awareness, like Inuksuk; Inuit cairns in Northern Canada- human symbols reassuring the traveler through that vast, frozen expanse that they are on the right path. The distinctly Feminine egg forms are both solid and fluid, like weighted tears, combined with geometry of form, like buoyant instruments of navigation, enduringly upright on ever changing seas. Although the white of the central plinth creates a Christian tryptic focus, the base construction of wooden pegs, like that of an ancient bardic instrument without its strings, suggests a much older connection to the mythology of the sea and our human origins.
Towards the Voice of the Night – by Will Maclean, No4 of a series of 12 collages and poems; A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.
Another highlight of the exhibition is MacLean’s collaboration with the poet John Burnside, A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, which has also been published by Art First, London, in book form. Displayed here as a series of 12 screen prints in three colours accompanied by each poem, the union of images and poetry is completely symbiotic. The starting point was a found London Times of 1880, engravings which were the raw materials for MacLean’s beautifully Surreal collages. These images were then interpreted by the poet, inspiring and creating a series of works beyond text and illustration. Song of a Storm Wave, Storm-Bird Harbinger, Towards the Voice of Night and Apparition of the Re-drowned are especially fine examples of what feels like an intimately epic song cycle. At the heart of Song of a Storm Wave there is an illuminated human presence, a palette forms the body of an instrument within a ghostly moonlit silhouette; human form composed of found text and image, meaning as fluid as the collage process, the movement of a surfacing porpoise and the rhythm of waves. The flow of creative process from image to text feels absolutely right; it’s a sublime marriage of Art and Poetry.
Song of a Storm Wave by Will Maclean, No1 of a series of 12 collages and poems; A Catechism of the Laws of Storms, in collaboration with poet John Burnside. Image by kind permission of Art First, London.