On ViewReena Spaulings Fine Art
February 18 – April 4, 2021
In a text accompanying his new show at Reena Spaulings, Alastair MacKinven confesses that he is comforted that “in the darkest depths of some caves live aquatic creatures without eyes that swim avoiding obstacles and they still are called fish.” What does this mean for a painter? Probably that the medium is so potent as to have inflicted a sort of evolutionary branding on its wandering practitioners—but it is also productive to imagine the primeval painter as a blind, muscled being who engages with the tactile and the chemical in a perversion of synesthesia.
MacKinven’s scenes approach history painting in both scale and mood, but fall just short. This is a good thing, as a step further would overload the pictures with meaning, and a step back would thrust their subjects into banality. It helps that the palette spans a hallucinatory range from dusty pink to acid green, suspending action in an unbelievable light. These pictures function well as dreams or visions, where pathos is implied but not felt. The suspicion of meaning compels an investigative kind of looking, but the nagging urge for recognition is stymied by texture.
Above all, MacKinven’s paintings signify their own medium: their primary concern is with surface and its disruption of image. In a square canvas, a bereaved figure kneels over a disembodied head, while another mourner, depicted as a blue shadow, faces away from the viewer. All of this is secondary to the surface texture, which is full of holes and scratches: the substrate has been subjected to an unnatural erosion. The picture plane’s pockmarks evidence either time or disease, and the canvas itself is warped and sagging against the stretchers, as if it had been repositioned and reworked too many times to sustain its elasticity.
Unlike the animatory harmony of form and image in cave paintings, MacKinven’s surfaces operate against his pictures, so that looking at them feels like gazing through damaged eyeglasses or inspecting a heavily restored mural. That the same hand created both image and disruption only complicates the matter: any sense of movement is frozen by the artificial aging of the object. So all of these untitled paintings from last year seem as distant as Pompeiian frescoes—and their context similarly fragmented, made in isolation and shipped across the Atlantic to an empty gallery. This type of painting is comfortable with dislocation, aware of its fate.
The picture that comes closest to relying on the visual rather than the tactile is an oversized portrait of a woman and a dog caught in an unnatural play of light. The color is impossibly prismatic, creating volume through a modulated gradient. From afar, the figure floats as a hologram tinged with crimson and neon green. Up close, that faceting deflates into pastel hues rubbed over an uncooperative texture. Time and vision are compressed into something heavy, each mark and counter-mark weighing on the painter’s gambit.
Though MacKinven invokes Turner in his writing, it is Constable’s view of Salisbury Cathedral that comes to mind, with its rainbow hanging stubbornly in the air, clouds weighing too much to float, and meadows experienced as pigment first; a painting unraveling to a field of gesture and substance indicating landscape. In this vein, MacKinven’s paintings point without fully convincing. I think this is intentional: an exposed matrix of color, gesture, and texture allows for a reading of the work as both becoming and dissolving. As MacKinven’s subjects pass through a space that is constantly being built and torn down, all is called into question: is anatomy nascent or decrepit? Is the light falling or rising?
The best painting is of a ghoulish figure stretching against a tablecloth, a plastic lighter rendered in disarming trompe l’oeil in the foreground. Only this one detail in the show provides illusionistic space, but it is enough to sway perception of the other pictures. That blue lighter convinces me that the nostalgia in these paintings is an affliction, not an affect, and that it can be accessed through looking. Rather than bringing these scenes into the world of the gallery, the lighter’s momentary illusion pulls the viewer into the dreamscape. Does the metaphor of the blind cave fish still resonate? It does seem that these paintings were born of a quagmire of experience, figures modeled from touch and description, not sight. Looking at them extends the paradox of the blind painter: it is like trying to remember a color never seen before.