Looking at John Macdonald’s Paintings

In the opening line of an essay called ‘The Allegories of Painting’ first published in English in 1993, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh says that, “Painting, the most traditional concretization of the aesthetic impulse, sees itself increasingly threatened by extinction.”  While acknowledging that painting was still the privileged art form for the dedicated audience, and for art collectors, he saw painting being “…threatened by another development: the territorial claims being made for a newly academicized practice of installation work.”

John Macdonald graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design (ECIAD) in Vancouver in 1987, at the high point in a recent decade of paintings supremacy. To put things in perspective, 1987 was the year that Andy Warhol died; Julian Schnabel published his illustrated memoir ‘C.V.J’; and in Kassel, Germany, Documenta 8 proposed to get beyond the “Hunger nach Bildern” – that voracious public appetite for painting, by focusing on a “new historical and social dimension” in art that wasn’t the “latest” trend.  ‘Art and society’ was being reawakened as a theme for the nineties; a decade when globalism and personal identity became the dominant tropes, and media and installation art became standard models for production. In the late-eighties the signs pointing to the end of paintings dominance were well in place. Flow became ebb and the climate of reception shifted to disfavor the ambitions of the emerging artist-painter. By this time though painting had a significant stake in a broader contemporary art discourse, and was advantaging its relatively brief historical connection to an interdisciplinary art context including photography, film, conceptual art, and installation. By and large, painting continued to retain its medium specificity, but production methods, style, and content, were increasingly cross-referenced to other art practices and discourse.

For a serious young painter with an abiding interest in the traditional materials and craft of painting, like John Macdonald, the challenges were to keep painting relevant: on a personal level, and to the tenor of the times. Of course painting didn’t go away, indeed painters kept painting; and artists such as Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, and Peter Doig, ensured that painting remained on the international radar screen throughout the nineties. Now, in 2005, it seems like everyone is painting. ‘De-skilled’ painting has been around for a few years. This may be called a ‘bad’, purposefully amateurist style, whose practitioners tend to emphasize subjectivity, fantasy, and life-styles above all else.  And, there are those painters whose practice may be seen to affirm the many historical traditions of painting as a site for conceptual, formal, and aesthetic investment.

John Macdonald is in the latter camp. He is an artist who views contemporary painting as an extension of its traditions, and, as a discipline receptive to innovations in form and meaning. His paintings are representations of the world around him. They may be said to present a glimpse, or a moment, of what we often refer to as the everyday world; ordinary scenes such as children playing, dogs swimming, picnics on the beach, room interiors. It would be easy to say that these scenes, these paintings of the anecdotal ‘everyday’ are at best a nominal description of the world as we know it; that they present a narrow window with a limited view. On the surface, such an opinion may be quite true, and certainly his paintings can be understood and enjoyed at this level of reception. Anecdotal narrative has a long tradition of use in literature and art. While the anecdotal may take the form of an entertainment, it is also frequently used in storytelling and in philosophical expositions as a metaphoric bridge, between for example, a commonplace vignette and a universal theme.

A painting called The Watcher, 2004, by John Macdonald, features on the right side of the canvas a man clad in swim trunks, seated on a beach towel with his back to viewer, and on the left side a nude woman seated on a stool, and facing the viewer. Her facial identity is hidden due to compositional cropping, his as he faces away from us. Superficially, one could say ‘the watcher’ is the man, as he appears to be looking for/at something off in the distance. But this assumption is unverifiable. Perhaps his female companion is the watcher; keeping a vigilant surveillance of the beach lest her private nudity be seen by outside, prying, watchful eyes? Or are we the watchers? Would these questions even arise if not for the title? The answer is yes, because painting is a visual art, it is about looking, about spectatorship; the tradition of visual art is also a tradition of representation, of constructing representations. So what John Macdonald has created in this incidental scene of a couple at the beach is, in effect, a metaphoric treatise on art and spectatorship. This can only be said because this specific paintings narrative plot is, in the first place, about looking. If one were to follow this narrative along the semiotic chain it would be far more speculative, but not entirely unwarranted, to advance the construction of representations to include the recent South-East Asian Tsunami disaster. Might the meaning/interpretation of this painting attach itself to this tragic intervention in the everyday lives of the regions coastal population, in which over two-hundred thousand people were killed?

The everyday is fraught with natural disasters, war and conflict, and human suffering; and yet the everyday also contains human kindness, love, tolerance, and redemption. In John Macdonald’s paintings, a moment is to be understood as a metaphoric juncture in time and space; a synchronous and circumstantial space-time episode in the complex narrative of humanity. In this, the historical and social dimension in his work can’t be described as the ‘latest trend’. Not because it’s not installation art, but because stories of the human drama have always been told and will continue to be told. Ultimately, it’s not the discipline which brings the ‘new’ to the story, it’s the storyteller.

Gary Pearson

Kelowna, BC

January 2005

Buchlow, Benjamin H.D., ‘The Allegories of Painting’. Witte de With – Cahier # 1, October 1993. Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam. Richter Verlag; p. 95 (pp. 94 – 101). The essay was first published in German as ‘Gerhard Richter und die Allegorie des Abstrakten Kabinetts’ in Text zur Kunst 8 (December 1992).


Marmer, Nancy. ‘Documenta 8: The Social Dimension?’.  Art in America, September 1987, Vol. 75, No. 6; p. 131 (pp. 128 – 138, 197, 199).