THE CONTENDING OF LIGHT AND PAINT IN THE ART OF
“Substance can express any feeling, any emotion.”
–James Elkins, What Painting Is
Or let us say, rather more ambitiously, the contending of light and paint and meaning in the art of John Macdonald. And let us briefly pursue that progress in the course of what will probably turn out to be not one small essay but two, joined somewhere in the middle. The first is about light. The second is about paint. With any luck, they will coalesce somewhere near the end, thereby echoing what ultimately happens in any of Macdonald’s specimen paintings.
John Macdonald’s art is an art of edges. Not the sharp, graphic edges of geometry or of stricture generally, but rather the edges that animate one another when two modes of being or substance or experience are forcefully juxtaposed. The great juxtaposition in Macdonald’s art is the coming together of light (or at least the semblance of light, the illusion of light) and paint, the one generating the other. And that primary juxtaposition has, in turn, enabled other perceptual sets of contrast, of energizing difference in his painting, not the least of which is his use of the beach—or, more generally, the water’s edge—as the setting for many of his works.
Macdonald is a neo-impressionist. I am not suggesting that he paints like Monet or Pissarro, for he does not. But he is tinctured with impressionism in that he appears to have an abiding interest—shared by impressionists, both historical and contemporary—in the poignancy and the amplified meanings that derive from the idea of transition.
“Impressionism”, wrote Guy Davenport in his essay on Henri Rousseau in Antaeus (Spring, 1985), “kept its innermost purpose a secret, being unaware of it: the idea of transition.” (1) But what makes John Macdonald a neo-impressionist, by contrast, is precisely his obvious awareness of that essential and essentializing idea. Of the sixteen paintings in this current exhibition, only one is an interior. The other fifteen are set either poolside or at the beach. And there is nowhere as transitional as a beach, as the locus of the vivifying contrast between the sea (or lake, river, pool) and dry land. (2)
There was a cartoon in The New Yorker many years ago showing a plucky fish that had hauled its way out of the sea and up onto the beach, only to be met with a sign stating “No evolving on this beach”. But in truth, there is an evolving on beaches: it is an evolving of both flesh and spirit, as the bounded body and the exuberant soul find themselves facing immensity. Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker note in their exhilarating book The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth that:
Impressionist painters were also fixated on transmitting
the hedonistic physicality of the seashore. Superb spectators,
they moved their contemporaries to view the beach as a source
of fresh sensations of the flesh. Their beach was a brilliant
lightshow of fluid, living, unstable forms bursting with colour.
But the beach has always been more than just runaway colour. As Melville so sonorously observed in Moby Dick, “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” The beach is the ante-chamber to the “sweet mystery” of the sea. We are born from the sea. The sea is therefore deeply and quintessentially sexual. “Sex”, write Lencek and Bosker, “is part of the catechism of the beach”. (4)
The sexuality of the sea (or the lake, river or pool) is obviously not the result of the skimpiness of the bathing suits it engenders, or because of the concomitant acreage of exposed flesh any proximity to the water permits and encourages—though a painting like A Quick Change clearly possesses an erotic furtiveness that is fed directly by the female’s brief transit of nudity, a nudity enlarged in its meaning by being presumably available only to the man she is using for a moment of transitional privacy. The fact is, we come to the beach, to the water’s edge, not just to swim and tan but, unconsciously or not, for a brief return to Eden. (5)
And it is the Edenic fragrance of Macdonald’s highly sensuous paintings, their trading in the archetypal, that lends them a great part of their meaning. If you examine the paintings in aggregate, you find before you the whole Family of Man and much of what constitutes archetypal human experience: couples, primal encounters (as in Midday Sun), parents with their offspring, sun-baked madonnas with children. It’s the human, generative romance per se, as well as Freud’s Family Romance, writ large and lush.
Macdonald’s paintings are absorbingly poised, by the way, just where the sociological meets the vaster reaches of the symbolic. Because the figures are, in a sense, isolated within the canvas that features them, and because they take up most of the space in each of the paintings devoted to them (they literally loom large), each of them—single figures or, in a painting such as Current, a mother and child alone with the rush of the sea—becomes monumental, iconic. They are what they are in the everyday human sense (a mother with her child, a man and a woman—the primal couple) as well as finding themselves promoted, as it were, to an embodiment of certain types of being, certain modes of human behaviour—as in a painting like Dreaming of Egypt, where the figures gazing seaward become emblems of yearning, of questing, of musing, of aspiration.
It is the way Macdonald imbues his figures and their encounters with the fragrance of the eternal, the archetypal, which lifts them beyond their role as genre figures, beyond the realm of the endlessly psycho-sexual trivializing that limits the meaning of painters such as Eric Fishl, for example (to whom I suppose Macdonald is often compared). In Macdonald’s mysterious, beautifully composed Allegory of a Truth and a Lie, for example, the deliberately angelic aura of the little girl who stares down at the supine form of the female nude, sleeping by the pool’s edge, rescues the painting from the workaday prurience or coy impropriety with which such a subject might well have been handled by Fishl , and elevates it to the status of pure visitation, tinctures it with the sonorousness of inquiry or judgement.
But all this congress of meaning is ultimately about light, and about how Macdonald manages to wrap light about the dramatis personae of his pictures, his repertoire of figures, carving them from paint and giving them breath. It is the painter’s wielding of light effects—the glare of the sea, the dance of the hot sun on the water, on the flesh, the palpable, contrasting coolness of his shadows—that lends his pictures the power they need to touch us and move us closely enough to them so that we can inspect the artistry from which they spring.
Which leads us to the second brief essay—the one about paint.
John Macdonald is a remarkably painterly painter. And although art criticism and commentary tends, for the most part, to be busy with what paint can be made to depict, how it comes to represent things, very little time is expended—especially now when painting is once again going through one of its innumerable and tirelessly repeated “deaths”—and very little discourse is generated by inquiries into what paint itself can say.
A happy exception to this drift towards a purely imagistic and exclusively philosophical reading of painting has been recently provided by art historian James Elkins, whose book What Painting Is is a charming if rather eccentric corrective to the usual sociological analysis of imagery. For Elkins, paint is a magical, indeed alchemical substance that, taken seriously as more than a means to an end, enables us to ask ourselves “what is thinking in painting, as opposed to thinking about painting?”
For Elkins, “painting is an unspoken and largely uncognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colours and the artist responds in moods.” (6) He has frequent recourse to the word hypostasis, which, he notes, “is the feeling that something as dead as paint might also be deeply alive, full of thought and expressive meaning”. Ordinarily, he suggests, “paint is a window onto something else, a transparent thing that shimmers in our awareness as we look through it to see what the painter has depicted. The art historian Hubert Damisch said it best when he titled one of his books The Cadmium Yellow Window. A painted window can be brilliant with light—think of Matisse’s open windows, with the curtains blowing n the warm ocean air—but it is always also a closed plaque, a heavy mineral deposit that is stubbornly and absolutely opaque.” (7)
Sometimes I feel that the heady enjoyment of pigment for pigment’s sake is looked upon in most circles these days as a sort of vaguely forbidden, onanistic pleasure. The beauty of Elkins’ book is that it takes paint seriously, re-legitimizing our innate feelings of wonder that the skillful manipulation of a substance that is basically, as Elkins notes, a mixture of rock and water (mineral and medium), can move us—sometimes to tears.
So it is with the eloquent “closed plaques”, with the robustly marshaled “heavy mineral deposits”, that constitute John Macdonald’s paintings. How did creamy yellow-white paint become sunlight—or at least arouse within us an almost experiential feeling for sunlight—paint as a galvanizing of shared memory? How does creamy-golden paint become flesh? How can these bones live?
Well of course they don’t live. Flesh is flesh. Paint is paint. But to say that is not enough. As Elkins maintains, paint—as directed by the artist—is flesh, is shadow, is water, is breath. Paint is not a skin covering over a fantasy world of the demented, hyperactive imagination. That is what is so powerful about John Macdonald’s fleshy, miasmic paintings. They are not just depictions of something. They are in themselves that something. When you look at them, they become what you behold. And, for a brief, hypostatic moment, you become what they are.
Gary Michael Dault
Toronto, October 3, 2005
Guy Davenport, “Henri Rousseau”, Anteus, No. 54, Spring 1985, p. 165.
2) “Man marks the earth with ruin”, Lord Byron writes in Childe Harold, “his control stoops with the shore”. Quoted in W.H.Auden, The Enchafed Flood or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (New York: Random House, 1950), p.16.
Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 198.
Lencek and Bosker, op.cit., p. 284. See their mini-essay “Eroticism on the Beach” in The Beach, in which the authors comment on the frequency with which poets—Shelley, for example—found the body’s immersion in water as a “sexually tinged encounter.” Valery, they point out, described swimming as “fornication with the wave”, while the German Romantic poet Novalis “longed to dive into what was for him the cosmic equivalent of the eaters of the maternal womb”. (p.106).
5) “Whatever the beach, it is still possible, in the presence of the timeless wash of waves, the sibilance of sand, and the warm kiss of the sun, to forget the nagging sense of fealty to cash, work, and responsibility. After all is said and done, we still come to the beach to slip through a crack of time into the paradise of self-forgetfulness.” Ibid., p.286. This self- forgetfulness brings us, of course, to a greater, deeper, archetypal sense of self.
James Elkins, What Painting Is (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 5.