In the corner of a page of one of the hard-backed notebooks kept by Andrew Mackenzie while working on these paintings, there is a small scribbled sketch in black biro. It is of Dog Falls, a series of river-rapids that tumbles through the woods of Glen Affric in the central Highlands, on land currently owned by the Forestry Commission. The sketch is dense and dark, and would be hard to decipher were it not for two jotted captions. ‘Silverpoint waterfall’, reads one, set above a roiling flow of biro-lines. ‘Orange fence wrapped around’, reads the other, next to a snarl of cross-hatching. On the top of the next page comes a further note-to-self: ‘I find the waterfall genuinely awe-inspiring, but I am also excited by the orange plastic building-area fencing…the conflated “whole” experience – road overlaying waterfall overlaying toilet shed, courtesy of Forestry.’
This aesthetic conflation between the ‘awesomely’ natural and the ‘excitingly’ manmade is at the heart of Andrew’s new paintings. ‘Between’, in fact, is a word worth watching in his work: like all prepositions it is easily missed, but like all prepositions it undertakes powerful directive work. Silver Between The Falls is the title of this new show (recalling both Nan Shepherd and Neil Gunn), Between States was the title of Andrew’s second solo show in 1998. ‘Between’ preoccupies him intellectually – because he is interested in the lenses and frames that interpose themselves between us and what we might imagine as to be nature. And ‘between’ preoccupies him formally, because his paintings – arduously produced on birch ply by a series of applications and scourings – often possess a shimmering finish that, like the surface of water, both entices the depth-seeking onwards gaze and returns it unanswered. These are paintings that we look into, but are also thrown back from, and the resulting experience for the viewer is a fascinatingly uneasy oscillation between the apparently profound and the insistently planar. The eye is permitted no comfortable settling.
In this respect, as in others, I am reminded of the extraordinary art of Eric Ravilious, the English watercolourist and designer who revolutionized landscape painting in the 1930s and then died in 1942 off the coast of Iceland, where he had been posted as a war artist. An out-of-kilterness distinguishes Ravilious’s paintings, in which surface and depth (often conveyed respectively by flat falling light and eye-leading paths) contradict and interplay. Viewing his art, one has the sense of looking at overlaid acetate sheets of the same image, imprecisely matched – or of two intersecting paths that never quite achieve their vertex. Ravilious, like Andrew, was compelled by the relationship between the natural and the manmade, and like Andrew he was fascinated by fencing, block-houses, windows and railway tracks: the human constructions which the traditions of the picturesque and the sublime have taught us to edit and extrude from our perceptions, and from our records of our perceptions – but which shape them nevertheless. Ravilious’s best-known watercolour, ‘Chalk Paths’ (1935), shows ancient white trackways curving off towards a down-land summit. Following the route of the tracks in the foreground, though, is a five-strand barbed-wire fence, tense and insistent: a stark modern line to set against the Neolithic pastoral of the path.
In previous paintings, Andrew has been preoccupied with those ubiquitous aspects of the contemporary landscape upon which we bestow our daily inattention: carparks, roads, quarries, reservoirs and waste-water plants. Such sites of transit, treatment and infrastructure were influentially christened ‘non-places’ by Marc Auge in his anthropology of supermodernity: venues that are apparently impervious to history, and in which human relations tend to be defined only transactionally. These new paintings investigate how aspects of ‘non-place’ insinuate their way into some unlikely locations: in particular, how the experience of certain celebrated Scottish ‘viewpoints’ is structured as much by toilet-blocks, visitor platforms and orange plastic fencing as by granite, gnarled pines and tumultuous water. Thus Andrew’s preoccupation with waterfalls, which – along with belling stags, mist-wreathed crags and empty glens – have long been central elements of the Caledonian sublime as devised by Scott, Landseer and others.
One of the several interests these images hold for me, though, is Andrew’s refusal entirely to reject the experience of awe. ‘Drawing the falls’, reads one vivid aside in a notebook, ‘under falling water, cascading, threatening, roaring, shadow constellations’. This body of work is no arid exercise in semiotics, smugly smitten with its own tasks of decoding and deconstruction. No, the challenge set – and met – in these paintings is how to convey astonishment at the presence of wild nature, while also exhibiting the complications and messiness involved in encountering it?
Andrew’s answer is a formal one: we are brought to see through the structures that hover so startlingly upon the silverpoint surfaces and the greyscale backgrounds, standing clear due to their strident colours (hi-vis orange, fire-extinguisher red, warning-sign yellow, the colours of gunge, gunk and sign, of toxin and tocsin), but not banning the passage of sight through their forms. Neither quite superimposed nor quite embedded, these elegant modernist diagrams do not float upon these paintings so much as project into our visual field. They become, to adapt Le Corbusier’s famous phrase, machines for viewing: subtly impinging on and shaping our encounter with these powerful landscapes.
An attempt might, I suppose, be made to separate or striate out the paintings’ layers. There is the ghostly zone of boulder, water-rush, tree and landform, so finely rendered that it seems to have been done in pencil and lead, but which has in fact been worked up by brush and oil. There is the uncertain surface sheen or wash, usually in a reduced palette of dun hues and quiet shades. And there are the blue-printed structures: the trees (their branching forms reminiscent of capillaries or the dendrites of neurons), the bridges, the boxes…. But in the end the effort of separation proves only theoretically possible: in the act of looking, hierarchies of layer seem beyond determination. Space snaps shut to plane, plane flickers back open into space.
There is a moment in Nan Shepherd’s slender masterpiece about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain (written in the mid-1940s but not published until 1977, and a book which has helped shape Andrew’s work), where Shepherd discusses how – in the mountain-world she loves so much – the human and the wild exist in a relationship of sharpening counterpoint, rather than mutually obliterating juxtaposition. ‘Up on the plateau’, she writes superbly:
nothing has moved for a long time. I have walked all day, and seen no one. I have heard no living sound. Once, in a solitary corrie, the rattle of a falling stone betrayed the passage of a line of stags. But up here, no movement, no voice. Man might be a thousand years away. Yet, as I look round me, I am touched at many points by his presence. His presence is in the cairns, marking the summits, marking the paths, marking the spot where a man has died, or where a river is born. It is in the paths themselves; even over boulder and rock man’s persistent passage can be seen, as at the head of the Lairig Ghru, where the path, over brown-grey weathered and lichened stones, shines as red as new-made rock. It is in the stepping-stones over the burns, and lower in the glens, the bridges. […] in the remains of the hut where the men who made the Ordnance Survey of the eighteen-sixties lived for the whole of a season […] It is in the sluices at the outflow of the lochs, the remnants of lime kilns by the burns, and the shepherds’ huts, roofless now, and the bothies of which nothing remains but a chimney-gable.
Like Shepherd, Andrew celebrates falling water as a ‘strong white stuff’ which ‘does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself’. But he is also alert to what the ‘water abstractor’ in Alice Oswald’s book-length river-poem Dart calls ‘the real work’ of water, which is to say the uses to which water is put, and the means by which we consume it with our thirsty eyes as well as our thirsty throats.
Robert Macfarlane is the award-winning author of Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, The Wild Places and The Old Ways. He is Fellow in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.