One tends to see what’s in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, (whereas) one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first…the Modernist way of seeing is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Modernist or Old Master.

No one could argue that a painting is not an object first, a physical enactment of materials laid bare on a flat plane. Modernism brought with it this awareness for both painters and viewers. Clement Greenberg fought for painting as an act of purity and autonomy but many of today’s painters see these rigid paradigms as too removed from the intricacy of the world around us. Just as it is possible to see the abstract qualities of surface and line in Bassano or Raphael, isn’t it just as valid to search for meaning or narrative within abstraction? The painters in this exhibition wrestle with the dichotomy between surface and subject. They find common ground in the acknowledgement of modernism, whilst considering the ways to deconstruct, taint or expose its apparent simplicity.

James Lumsden and Andrew Mackenzie are both preoccupied with the monochrome surface. For Lumsden the flat surface takes on a photographic theatricality, suffused with illusionist depth and light. But wait: look closer and the perfect surface is disrupted; the layers of paint can be tracked in tiny, repetitious brushstrokes and edges or borders of canvas are stripped bare or left unpainted. Lumsden hereby draws us closer to the materiality of the surface, making his paintings more abstract than ever. But does this materialism simply draw us to their process of making, or is he picking apart modernism’s seamless vision, exposing it as a failed utopia?

Like Lumsden Mackenzie draws in the viewer with seductive surfaces but his process is subtractive, laying on paint only to take it away again. There is a tragic romance in his erasure, reminding us how much gets lost in the passage of time. His ghostly surfaces seem worn as if by nature, like walls gradually stained by the weather. This connection with nature is dually emphasised by his trees. Their intense colour contrasts starkly with the heavy ground to create depth, yet Mackenzie is also referencing botanical drawings and 18th and 19th century landscape painting as well as the many historical associations with trees, revealing further interplays between forms and meanings.

Where these artists use the painted surface as atmospheric field for Michael Craik, Sharon Quigley and Jo Milne the surface is a site for decoration and pattern, emphasising the flat autonomy of the painted object. Craik uses architectural geometric pattern as a framework on which to build up layers of paint into the subtlest form of relief. Painting onto aluminium further enforces the objectivity of the work, their slimness bringing them close to sculpture. His generic patterns are coolly detached from the specifics of place, seeming instead to recall the anonymity of the urban experience. Recent developments see Craik using Arabic patterns as inspiration, moving from the modern urban ideal to the primitive roots of abstraction.

As complex as the minutiae of ordinary life can be, a range of structures hold it together and these complex and varied patterns provide a starting point for both Sharon Quigley and Jo Milne. Quigley’s sources are richly varied, including kimono designs, arabesque and nineteenth century engravings and cellular structures. The sources are united in a personal vocabulary involving richly worked surfaces built up with wax and resin. This personal language could be likened to what philosopher and curator Nicolas Bourriaud has recently defined as the ‘altermodern’ – an attempt to gather together multiple sources into a personal and unified language, the preoccupation of many contemporary artists.

If Quigley starts broad and narrows down, Jo Milne’s practice could be seen in reverse; her paintings start with specific areas of language or coded symbols and expose a playful or complex spirit beneath. For example DNA structures, jacquard loom cards, pianolo rolls and Braille are exploited as starting points but broken apart into complex and layered patterns. In Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy systems of language come into question too, where a word can lose its meaning with the simple removal of one letter, bringing the tower of communication tumbling down. Like Auster, Milne references elements of language as technological constructions or ‘cyphers’, but they are grounded in the rich and human surface of paint, a near symbol for the human body.

The artists here explore the variable ways in which tautological paintings can be relevant and accessible to the contemporary viewer and find themselves scattered across the spectrum between process and meaning. But it seems they would all share art historian Meyer Schapiro’s stance:

‘…there is no ‘pure art’; all fantasy, and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experiences and concerns…’

Rosie Lesso is an artist and writer in Scotland © 2009

  • Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’ Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)
  • Nicholas Bourriaud: Ideal Syllabus, Frieze Magazine, Issue 115, May 2008
  • Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, (Faber & Faber, USA, 1987)
  • Meyer Schapiro, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, ed. Francis Frascina (Routledge, New York, 2000)


Skinny Magazine, 28th August 2006

Andrew Mackenzie – Delicate Ground

Mackenzie revels in the seductive, snaking patterns which his trees create.

In these works Mackenzie combines an astute eye for design – the subtle placement of text and the dynamic interplay of colour – with a delicate painter’s touch. The surfaces of his paintings are ingrained with a secret visual history; with evidence of mark making (and subsequent erasure) creating a ghostly sense of embedded experience. On top of these delicate composites he depicts – mostly in flat colour – fragments of landscapes which possess a pleasing and enigmatic decorative quality. Like many an artist before him, Mackenzie revels in the seductive, snaking patterns which his trees create, here augmenting his compositions with carefully painted words – “bridge”, “underpass” – which nod towards the labelling of 19th century botanical drawings and create a thoroughly modern dialogue between the viewer and the ersatz representations of the text. Introducing type into traditional painted works is always something of a gambit, but the bold certainties of these words find a useful foil in Mackenzie’s shifting, skeletal backgrounds. On an aesthetic level, these are superbly well judged works and the artist displays great relish in creating vibrant oppositions of colour and pattern. A very satisfying show.

Skinny Magazine, 28th August 2006
Lucy Faringold

Review Scotsman, August 2006

If group shows seem to pull the mind in several directions at once, Andrew Mackenzie’s solo show at Amber Roome has a certain edgy tranquillity. Mackenzie’s work is shifting from abstraction towards moody contemporary landscapes, skeletal tree forms layered against richly coloured backgrounds.

Sometimes a faint line of buildings remains where one has been painted then removed, the ghost of a street lamp, a pavement, a pylon. Titles like Underpass and Winter New Build, which sometimes appear in the paintings in copperplate, speak of unseen man-made presences which only increase the desolation, like a lone tree in an urban wasteland.

Mackenzie interacts with the historical idea of landscape; some of these paintings follow the most traditional of rules, a vista framed by trees, although the trees frame nothing but colour.

In Artificial Paradise, a fallen tree lurches towards another against a blood red sky which seems illuminated by lightning, cutting off the middle distance. It’s beautiful and unsettling, paradise perhaps, but poised on the edge of a darker, more threatening world.

Review Scotsman, 22nd August 2006
Susan Mansfield


Scotland on Sunday, August 2006

For further proof that contemporary Scottish painting is alive and well, you could do little better than walk down the hill to Cumberland Street where in its brave little outpost of contemporary art, Amber Roome is showing the work of Andrew Mackenzie.

Roome’s stable of artists falls somewhere between the Ingleby’s big names and doggerfisher’s cutting edge, readily filling a gap in the Edinburgh art scene. Mackenzie’s work is typical of its quality and for further evidence you might wander downstairs for a group show by other gallery artists.

Mackenzie paints landscapes, but he does so in a highly original way. Like Rae, he is concerned with the intervention of man, although in Mackenzie’s case these are not the archaeological accretions of past civilisations but the more mundane, less welcome evidence of contemporary society. At first glance his images appear as nothing more than calm, sparsely evocative portrayals of single trees against a ghosted ground. Look more closely, though, and you become aware of other, more regular lines tracing a path through this wilderness. In works bearing such revealing titles as Underpass and Artificial Paradise, Mackenzie scars his landscapes with suggestions of a human presence, employing the callous precision of an architect’s blueprint. Then, with some delicacy of touch he retraces the outline of a tree with a blue line suggestive perhaps of some manufactured, creeping virus and inscribes in fine, period script the single, sinister and subversive word ‘Transmission.’

Sparsely hung to encourage our contemplation, Mackenzie’s thoughtful paintings demonstrate, like Ford’s knights, that at Festival time, as always, often the most modest of shows can yield unexpected, welcome surprises.

Scotland on Sunday, 20th August 2006
Iain Gale

BBC Collective, August 2006

Andrew Mackenzie – delicate ground

As much about rehearsing the movement of your hand whilst drawing, as the visual imagery it creates, Andrew MacKenzie’s paintings explore the romantic detachments from the real, when we choose to represent something through memory.

Surfaces are reworked, layered, scraped back and covered, ghosts of line drawings emerge as shadows. There is something print like, even photographic, in the images created, as if they’ve been impressed upon the surface.

Images from Andrew MacKenzie – Delicate Ground

The paintings, or rather drawings, describe locations possibly well known to the artist, and familiar to us all: kerbside trees by empty streets, bridges, the edge of a building site. MacKenzie states that the actual locations are no longer relevant, but it is the almost symbolic representation of elements together that drives the work. Often texts are inserted, describing human process within the environment.

By erasing and redrawing, the works become more about retracing paths on the surface of the painting, and the images persist through their own familiarity.

BBC Collective, 10th August 2006
Shireen Taylor

The List, August 2006

The simple beauty of Andrew Mackenzie’s most recent paintings belies the time and effort that goes into making them. Layers of paint create a textured, time-altered surface, like the armrest of a much-used painted chair. Floating on top are delicate traceries of twigs and branches, trees at crazy angles, the untended woodland of the hard shoulder; sometimes the hint of a concrete structure, and words: ‘Phonemast’, ‘Underpass’. These interventions into the anonymous, urban treescapes capture a tension between abstract pattern and reality, the point where nature meets human. In ‘Transmission’ the urban environment emerges, the kerb drawn with the accuracy of an architect’s schema, like a city planner attempting to impose order on chaos.

Larger paintings are bordered in wide, white canvas, like Polaroid photographs. If Mackenzie has used photographs to provide the bones of his compositions, carefully selecting the lines he will modulate and bend to his vision, the resulting paintings evoke the shadow images of double exposures, or even calotypes disappearing after exposure to light. Blue paper looks as though the drawing has been blotted out of it. A harmony of reds is like a retinal pattern dimly seen. The delicate grey lines of silverpoint are little snowscapes on white ground; see-through serif calligraphy hovers at the front of the picture plane, bringing us back to dayglo urban reality: ‘Yellow Plastic’, ‘Distant Humming’. Memory and romance are in a dialogue with the necessities of modern life and its own particular aesthetic beauty.

The List, 9th August 2006
Ailsa Boyd

The Scotsman, November 2002

Andrew Mackenzie, Merz gallery

The recently opened Merz gallery in Broughton Street takes its name from Kurt Schwitter’s use of merz, or rubbish, for his art. It is a pun, for the site used to be a junk shop – so the spirit of Schwitters lives on. Schwitters was an abstract artist at one level but because he used scraps of material discarded from our daily lives, his art also retained a very positive link with the quotidian. Andrew Mackenzie, currently showing, is in this tradition.

His art has all the purity and simplicity that one looks for in this kind of visible music. But his lovely compositions of balanced shapes in grey and white, and subtle variations of surface have titles such as Untitled (power station, hidden wires), Untitled (pier), or Untitled (suspended walkway). The use of “Untitled” is a convention of abstract art, but in the bracketed bit the artist seems to direct us to the actual landscape experience that was the original grit for his pearl. And, indeed, pearls they are. Exquisitely made, they seem to be the record of a process of gradual refinement; the distillation of the essential music as all the interference and ambient noise is stripped away to leave the eloquence of simplicity.

The Scotsman Tuesday, 26th November 2002
Duncan Macmillan



Andrew Mackenzie’s well-ordered Edinburgh studio is tucked up high in an industrial conversion beside Easter Road football stadium. It faces northeast. On a good clear day, of which there are plenty, you get a magnificent view across the rooftops to the Firth of Forth and many studio visitors tend to find their eyes straying out of the window towards the sea. Since first noticing this pattern, the painter has wryly placed a sign across the glass. Viewpoint it says, in glossy letters.

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.

Moira Jeffrey

1. From a lecture by Nagritte in 1938 cited in Sara Whitfield, Magritte, London 1992, p62

2. Neil Gunn, The Atom of Delight, Polygon, p139