Boxed in by the window frame, the view from Mackenzie’s window is a landscape in its traditional sense: a strip of city, an expanse of sea and the hills of Fife in the far distance. Observed from a static position, seen from the other side of glass, it is separate from us: out there, defined and definable. Mackenzie, whose own work proposes a deeper and much more ambiguous relationship with nature, often works with his back to the window.
Viewpoint has an echo of René Magritte’s 1933 painting La Condition Humaine: a soft, wooded landscape with a cumulus-clouded sky viewed through what seems like the window of a suburban sitting room. There’s a frame within the frame however, as much of what appears to be the outside world is in fact an oil painting sitting on an easel, so continuous with the view through the glass that it is virtually indistinguishable. “This is how we see the world, ” Magritte explained. “We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.”1
Landscape painting is a genre, an “invented tradition”, with its own rules and it’s own particular histories. Similarly landscape in its broadest sense, is neither neutral nor untouched: it is constructed both literally and culturally. Mackenzie’s work, which relies heavily on fusing his actual empirical experience of real places with the processes of memory and the physical act of intuitive painting, refutes the historical idea that landscape is something we only find on the outside, suggesting instead that the arbitrary boundary between nature and culture should be dissolved.
Similarly his work seeks to explore the way in which both city and country are “man-made”. Mackenzie was brought up in a farming community in the North East of Scotland, but for almost half his life now he has lived in the city. His painting negotiates his own journey from a rural to an urban identity. The country is now a place he visits for leisure. A place conditioned by memory, contemplation and pleasure. Like most of us he often views nature through the veil of a car window, and his work repeatedly uses visual devices from such journeys: the vertical streetlamp, the horizontal motorway bridge, and the punctuation of flat, cultivated land with buildings.
Untitled (reassuring orange glow) is a series of 18 panels triggered by the artist’s experience of driving South to Edinburgh from a Perthshire bird sanctuary at night. The back of each panel is mounted to create an inch space between panel and wall and sprayed with orange fluorescent paint. When the work is installed it gives off an orange backlight, analogous to the sodium glow one sees in the sky as one approaches a large city.
Untitled (credit) considers the way that familiar landscapes may play over and over again both in our lives (those endless, repeated journeys) and in our heads. Mackenzie sees memories of places as a kind of image bank: randomly filed yet accessible if the triggers are right, an idea he encountered in these words from Scottish writer Neil Gunn’s book The Atom of Delight: “possibly the whole of life is recorded and filed away, and only needs a scent, a tune, a few chance words to bring the forgotten file, the lost experience into conciousness…”2 The format of these works, each literally the size of a credit card explores Mackenzie’s interest in repetition, mass-production and also the way in which visual marks are coded information. In a sense the tiny surface of these paintings conceal as much as they reveal, the information they contain relating to the artist’s own memories, the time and technique used in their construction, as impalpable as the electronic data of the credit system.
Mackenzie’s paintings often recall obsolete objects or buildings. Untitled (Atlantic) is series of 9 coloured ellipses each taking their cue from plastic waste items gathered randomly on an Irish beach. Paintings like Untitled (obsolete lookout tower in the trees, recalled) and Untitled (water tower) refer to man made objects in the landscape. Buildings remembered from childhood that have changed over time, drawn from recollection and gradually obscured by layers of paint evoking the role of memory and a strong sense of impermanence.
There is a link here with some of the essentials of the classical landscape tradition, the temple or ruined folly you’d find in a painting by Claude Lorrain or Poussin from a period in painting in which the interrelationship between landscape cues, memory and cultural values was at it’s height. Unlike such follies however Mackenzie’s interest however is in utilitarian buildings that have now become anachronistic.
These paintings reveal an inherent contradiction: pared down and unsentimental in their intent, they are densely layered, worked upon and reworked and somehow surreptitiously suffused with emotion. It is somewhere in that tricky balance that they achieve an important insight into our relationship with landscape in both its senses. Mackenzie’s repetition, his marks, traces, and incisions evoke our own response to landscape: the human elements of intervention, recollection and recognition.
What remains fascinating about these works are the way in which they are in some sense circular. While revelling in the discovery that our relationship with landscape is as much cultural as physical, they continue to assert the importance of that relationship. His paintings reframe the words on his studio window. Landscape is not a fixed viewpoint, but undoubtedly remains a point of view.
2. Neil Gunn, The Atom of Delight, Polygon, p139