Interview with James Clegg, curator at The Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, for Converge catalogue, Visual Art Scotland, RSA, Edinburgh 2016:
What is your works’ relationship to the world?
They are connected to the world in the sense that they were born from a direct experience, as all my work is. Time spent in the studio is an attempt to work out this experience in form.
From some perspectives it might seem that there is a contradiction between direct experience – something singular, transient and informed by multiple sensations, surprise and ambiguity – and the constancy of your work. But I think that constancy allows you to rediscover direct experience in the studio because the world that is encountered and the abstract schemes of your practice share the fact that they are already there in advance, a kind of a priori. With that in mind I am interested in how your work develops in time.
Yes, although I require the empirical experience of a place to ignite the work, my interest is directed, or focused, by ideas gathered from books, politics and art history.
The work may appear constant, and consistent with previous works, but it has slowly evolved. I spend a great deal of time in the studio revising, working over, pushing back and pulling forward in an attempt to discover the relationships within the work: a tension between control and chance, between the surface and the subject, between the initial spark and the realisation. I think of the many layers of the work as representing different time-frames, as discussed later, but first I’d like to say something about how the subject of these drawings relate to time.
This particular service station first caught my attention (driving by) because it radiated a beautiful sense of abandonment. A passing glimpse of a “past” service station, a temporary modern ruin on a brown-field site on the outskirts of the city, presented interesting possibilities. I returned later to draw (see image of sketchbook) and photograph the site, and it is now gone completely; this transitory state appealed to me.
The generic architecture of the service station is resolutely modernist, populating our landscape in their thousands like anonymous outgrowths of a universal vision.
Many great architects have designed variations on the filling station, but, generally speaking, today we tend not to consider who designs and manufactures them. They are illuminated, branded, comforting and “new”, exuding simplicity, geometric cleanliness and efficiency. In the 1960’s, the golden age of motoring, filling station design reflected the futuristic awe surrounding car ownership and illusions of freedom, such as Eliot Noyes designs for Mobil.
This place, however, negated all these associations. I imagined how nature might have gradually swallowed the site, given the chance. The defunct structure of this service station has passed into another use or entered land-fill. It is now an uncertain memory. There is therefore in this work a twisted sense of the past – returning the ruined form of the building to something like a diagrammatic blueprint with the suggestion of an entropic future conflated together. “[it]… is like encountering a revenant – a return in figurative form of a glimpse of a future that never was, a visionary dream that was envisioned once but which slipped out of collective memory.” 1.
Oil and petroleum have shaped the political events of the last century, with claims made for the value of Scottish Oil reserves surfacing at the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum. You’re not necessarily known for making political statements as such. How does this charged subject matter fit within your ongoing practice?
The use of utilitarian subject matter is not new for me. I have made work about Torness Power Station (in a show called Fearful Symmetry, a subject I’ve since returned to), about transport infrastructure (road bridges and underpasses) and deserted supermarket car parks (see image). These are all aspects of our constructed landscape, and they all offer potentially “charged” points of departure for discussion. Although my initial excitement concerning this project may have been the abandoned form of the structure and its visual possibilities, I was also aware of the potential significance of a dead service station, and how that may be read.
There has been a shift for me. Like many people, I became deeply involved in the 2014 referendum debate. Politics suddenly seemed more relevant to our actual lives than ever before, closer to home. This was – still is – a good thing.
In previous work I was exploring and acknowledging the contemporary landscape (both rural and urban) and its constructs, echoing the perceptual relationship we have with it by developing a personal visual language through an abstracted system of graphic marks, rhythms, spaces and surfaces which form an equivalent structure to my internal sense of the place. This new work seeks to do that also, while simultaneously foregrounding serious concerns regarding our dependency on the petroleum and gas industries, and the government’s refusal to acknowledge the changes needed to move forward, towards renewable and sustainable energy. The overtly political content of the subject is new for me and it is born out of frustration.
Previously your work has derived from poetry about the Scottish landscape – it has spoken to a landscape that has accrued a particular set of concepts. The new work evokes something much more anonymous, displaced almost. Has your work naturally pushed you towards this kind of ‘non-place’ or have you made a conscious decision to deal with it conceptually within your practice?
As mentioned above, my work prior to 2011 tended to focus on non-romantic aspects of our surroundings, though not exclusively. In 2011 however, I made the decision to deliberately confronted the (somewhat loaded) legacy of the romantic Scottish landscape. in a more focused way. With this in mind, I visited specific waterfalls, rivers, lochs and woodland in the highlands in order to make work about them, as an attempt to unravel this legacy. This led my work in a more “poetic” direction, and it made sense therefore, in 2014, to collaborate on a project with the poet Ken Cockburn, in which we both responded to The Ettrick Valley and it’s literary/artistic associations.
These new drawings for Converge, represent a return for me to a thread I was unravelling previously. I discovered that the same things are true of certain “non-places” as they are of “places”, if you’re willing to spend some time considering and exploring them. I can see many equivalents in spending time, looking and thinking about relationships between nature and culture, in both “place” and so-called “non-place”. There are slippages between them, and I think that to give active attention to your surroundings, wherever you are, and ask what that particular place means or signifies, is important.
I feel drawn to these peripheral places, places which exist in abundance all around us every day of our lives and are therefore easy to ignore. They show us a lot about ourselves, the world we have created and how it is changing, but also offer me the visual forms and spaces I need to make work. The specific service station used for these drawings, although unappealing to most, is a place of change, a place where, significantly, one thing falls away and transforms into something else.
Your work has always seemed to insist that ‘abstraction’ is a facet of recognisable organic forms just as much as it is the more typical geometric forms. The world ‘out there’ can only be re-presented by a symbolic language. A language, which I suggested at the outset, is largely known to us in advance, a priori. This search for ‘slippages’, which has come into focus within this new body of work is intriguing. It suggests encounters with a natural world that distort our sense of structure, whether built or whether the structure of a (painterly) language. I wonder if you might say more about slippages, more about the material displacements taking place within your work?
In terms of ‘abstraction’, I build up a rhythmic pattern of marks across the surface of the work which relate to multiple (displaced) images of a place, but do not seek to imitate these places illusionistically. It is important to me that the works have an independent existence, but still form relationships of association in the mind of the viewer between the geometry and the organic forms. Sometimes the viewer is surprised when moving in close to one of my paintings, to discover that the rocks or hillside are composed of many repeating straight lines, dots or dashes. This process chimes with how I read landscape as a shifting, temporal phenomena of conciousness, ‘framed’ by our way of seeing.
Displacement occurs formally within the work, as layers of material partially obscure underlying drawing, and subsequent layers slip and move slightly; overlapping to maximise visual potential, creating a deliberate visual buzz. This process echoes the sense of dislocation upon visiting the site, but also a sense of excitement.
The work marks both time spent in the studio, but also the memory of time spent considering a place. What is an experience of a place? Where does it occur?
I draw from ‘life’ sometimes (see image of sketchbook) and I’m aware that in the brief time it takes to look and process the visual information, more actively constructed by the brain than by the external world, your perspective can alter slightly. However key the outside experience is for me, any immediate freshness of vision can be as much in the studio as outside. These formal “slippages” are acknowledgments of this responsive process.
- James Bridle, quoted from www.howtothinkaboutthefuture.com, Hauntology, Charles Beckett
Catalogue Essay by James Clegg from Veined With Shadow Branches, a solo exhibition in 2014 with Sarah Myerscough, London:
The experience of the painter
“It is the mountain itself which from out there makes itself seen by the painter; it is the mountain that he interrogates with his gaze. What exactly does he ask of it? To unveil the means, visible and not otherwise, by which it makes itself a mountain before our eyes. Light, lighting, shadows, reflections, colour, all the objects of his quest are not altogether real objects; like ghosts, they have only visual existence.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1961, pp 11-12)
Imagine a geographic expanse of land; picture the depressions of valleys and the crests of mountain tops. Glide gracefully over undulating hills and spin around an expanse of rock to gain a sense of its depth, its volume, its solidity, its immense weight.
Perhaps it is an obvious thing to point out, but these images are based upon our experience of representations of the landscape. It is important to remember that such images are derived from aerial photographs and computer generated imagery, stories and fantasies; they are based upon what you learnt in school about space; they reflect concepts that are proper to cartography but which are not derived from being in the landscape.
The distinction between images based on systems of representation and the actual experience of landscape is at the heart of Andrew’s work. But we must be clear – as Andrew is when speaking about his practice – that neither way of thinking about landscape is any more or less ‘real’ than the other. As Merleau-Ponty highlighted, as we walk, that distant mountain only reaches us through our sense of sight– it is always something of a spectre. And as we walk we do so in order to change where we are and therefore to change what we can see, so that the landscape is something that is constantly remade by us in our experience of it. As a painter, Andrew works to reveal the problems of trying to deal with experience visually, but also reminds himself through field trips he makes of what it feels like to touch objects and be amongst them.
A recurrent motif in Andrew’s work is the abstract geometric structure placed on top of an image of a landscape (And we have to say ‘on top of’ rather than ‘in front of’ because even though these geometric forms are unbroken by the landscape, we cannot really be sure that foreground and background conventions are in play). These abstract structures evoke modern ways of representing and building in space. And Tim Ingold, in his work dedicated to the history of lines, has highlighted at length the ideology embedded in straight lines:
The relentlessly dichotomising dialectic of modern thought has, at one time or another, associated straightness with mind as against matter, with rational thought as against sensory perception, with intellect as against intuition, with science as against traditional knowledge, with male as against female, with civilization as against primitiveness, and – on the most general level – with culture as against nature. (Ingold 2007, p152)
In the context of Andrew’s work, these straight lines are held in suspension against a landscape that they ultimately fail to contain. Waterfalls, those amorphous entities made from moving liquids, spill over edges and trees proffer a tangle of bifurcating branches, strewn like loose threads, in contempt of the flat surface of the picture plane. Andrew doesn’t allow the ideology of the straight line to exert control. They hover and float, and like many images derived from systems of representation have an abstract sense of permanence about them, but they do not delineate or section off.
The new silverpoint drawings on paper have the quality of afterimages left on the retina. Within them certain forms are simply hollows; where other forms are shadows. The white of the hollows becomes a kind of space into which our own afterimages might reveal themselves and where we might project imaginary forms. Shadows, as we know, are areas from which no light escapes, meaning that we also only see them in their absence. They speak of that uncertainty which is in attendance when we perceive the world, sense it by intuition, but cannot yet recognise and understand it.
Andrew’s practice taken as a whole is bound to a sense of duration, always looking forwards. When Andrew is out in the field, touching objects, writing, drawing and photographing, he has a sense of things to come. The fragments he gathers become elements that crowd the studio walls. The sketches, notes and photographs extract small structural forms that can be repeated, reused and recombined. And through this process Andrew tries to get back to experience, back to the sensations of being. Experience, which this process is woven through, has everything to do with our connection to a world that is still to be determined, still coming into being.
In the language of phenomenology, that branch of philosophy practiced by thinkers also trying to get back to experience, “The perceived thing is not an ideal unity in the possession of the intellect, like a geometrical notion, for example, it is rather a totality open to a horizon of an indefinite number of perspectival views which blend with one another according to a given style, which defines the object in question.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, p.439) In other words, with Andrew’s work to guide us, in experience we understand any object or idea as something that we could encounter again from a different perspective. We cannot get at the ‘essence’ of landscape when we can possibly see it in different lights later on, in different weather conditions, different moods; when we can always discover new things about it. “The idea of going straight to the essence of things is an inconsistent idea if one thinks about it. What is given is a route, an experience which gradually clarifies itself, which gradually rectifies itself and proceeds by dialogue with itself and with others.” (Ibid, p443). Andrew’s works hold together in a way that allows us to move through categorically different layers, checking one against another, reminded of the process of their making and accumulation. It is in this way that following the life blood of those shadow-branches, we are passed between systems of representation, which then gently guide us back to lived experience.
Ingold, Tim (2007) Lines: A Brief History. London; Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M (1961) Eye and Mind in Joseph D. Parry (ed.) (2011) Art and Phenomenology. London; Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M (1964) The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays in Moran, Dermot and Timothy Mooney (2002) The Phenomenology Reader. London; Routledge.
Moran, Dermot and Timothy Mooney (2002) The Phenomenology Reader. London; Routledge.
Catalogue essay by Robert MacFarlane, from Silver Between the Falls, a solo exhibition in 2012 with Sarah Myerscough Gallery:
Silver Between The Falls
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, August 2012