As commutes to work go, it’s not a bad one. Out the house, through the woods, over a field, skirt a pond – maybe linger a while – and turn into the farmyard. It is the route Andrew Mackenzie takes every day to his studio on a farm just outside Stow, and it has become, in the 12 years since he moved to the Borders village from Edinburgh, his inspiration.
“It’s just crept in,” he says of the slow awareness that he has acquired of these rural immediate surroundings. It is something that has fed into the oil paintings and mixed media works which he has created for his first solo show in Edinburgh for ten years, opening this weekend at the new &Gallery space on Dundas Street. Mackenzie’s art is rooted in how we perceive the landscape, although it has never been about direct representation, he points out. And yet if he has always considered his work as abstract in some way, that has, in the past few years, undergone a slight shift. Alongside his large scale oils, which he has been busy exhibiting in this last decade in galleries from Toronto to London, with their concentrated treatment of colour and space, with their superimposed framework of trees or geometric lines, their sense of placement and perception, he has begun to work on drawing.
“I think it was a reaction against the process of painting,” he tells me from his home in Stow. “Paintings are so intense to produce and take such a long time. The process involved in making a painting in oil is a very labour intensive one – drawing in paint, applying paint, removing paint, seeing what’s left behind, using that as a starting point for the next stage of applying and removing until something happens. You never know when that point is going to be.”
After art college, Mackenzie went through a long phase of “minimal abstraction”, working on using colour in a way that wasn’t descriptive, “solving the puzzle of what the painting is trying to tell me”. He found himself, one day a couple of years ago, just picking up a stick of charcoal and sketching. Instead of days, weeks, months, he could finish a drawing in less than an hour. “I have to say, I as more surprised than anyone to find myself doing fairly straightforward landscape drawings in charcoal,” he laughs, “but it’s a very direct way of working.” Direct, yes, but soon Mackenzie, perhaps ever the painter, began experimenting again, layering his drawings, working in colour, shaving away with a palette knife to create a “snow” then rubbing it in to see what happened. If his drawings process was being wedded to his painting process, he also began working outside again, “something I hadn’t done since I was 17 or 18,” he says.
Mackenzie was born in Banff, graduating from Edinburgh College of Art (MFA) in 1993, and is now President of Visual Arts Scotland. He admits to being a little nervewracked at the prospect of his Edinburgh show, purely on the basis that, whilst his shows in Melbourne, in Toronto, in London, have been important to him, here he knows a lot of people “whose opinions I care about!”.
It looks, in any event, to be a fascinating show. A key theme is water, whether reservoirs, lochs, river, snow or pond, and its relationship with trees, which has sprung in part from his work as Project Artist for the Hawick Flood Protection Scheme. Mackenzie had designed artwork for 30 large scale glass panels looking at the watershed of the river, its tributaries and place-names and tree forms, with a tree planted on each tributary. “That learning curve, working on the Hawick Project, of discovering this vital importance of trees and water for the health of the river, biodiversity and natural flood management, has really fed into the work in The Opposite Shore.”
Mackenzie’s striking works are both subtle and bold, skirting the meeting point between representation and abstraction, wearing their references lightly yet having a depth of comment on our relationship with the natural world – of which however one defines it, we are an indelible part – and with the “swallowing up” of land, which is there if you are looking for it. Often the paintings are punctuated by bright lines and what look like architectural frameworks – but these, Mackenzie points out, are taken from the landscape too. “In Stow, it’s all field boundaries, woodland tracks, but everything planted or managed in some way… I’ve been looking at vertical forms in the landscape, snow poles, telegraph poles, all man-made interventions.” he says. At the heart of his work is a notion of place, of interpolation. “It’s really about our perception and how we relate to our surroundings.”