Figuring it all out
Wellington painter Rob McLeod’s exuberant caricatures of stressed office workers, cowboys, banshees and ogres leap off the walls and into the room. Dan Chappell reports on the organised chaos of these biomorphic figures.
The good thing about the recent figurative cutouts of painter Rob McLeod is that there’s no shortage of visual hooks – except as visitors to the recent Auckland Art Fair found when they walked into the PAULNACHE Gallery stand, those riffs can go on… and on… and on. Gallery director Matt Clarke opted to give McLeod free rein in his space throughout the fair – and the daily parade of McLeod’s menagerie of the weird, the wonderful, the uptight, the unbuttoned, the spook from the back of the wardrobe, Tweety Bird, Mickey Mouse, a few squirting orifices, and everything in between marched out of the box. Judging by the crowded stand, McLeod had struck a chord – both with his old buyers keen to re-engage, and with new fans who were enchanted by something quite different from what else was on offer at the fair.
So, where has McLeod’s mad mélange sprung from? The answer is a convoluted one, as McLeod recounts. He trained at the Glasgow School of Art, graduating with a Diploma of Art, Drawing and Painting in 1969. “They had this very formal, academic style of teaching based on figuration – we started off drawing light-bulbs, Dinky Toys, then from plaster models, and by the third year we graduated to life models. I hated the whole four years I was there, and fought against it. The moment I left art school I dropped figuration completely and started pushing into abstraction. I’d seen an Alan Davie exhibition in 1966 and a de Kooning show in 1967, and was absolutely swamped by what I’d seen.”
Having rebelled against the system in Glasgow, McLeod realised his chances of exhibiting there were slim, so he migrated to New Zealand in 1972, and with contacts via his then brother-in-law, artist Rob Taylor, he gradually found his feet in the Wellington art scene. “I came here confused, but found my feet here via Davie and de Kooning – there were elements of me I had to find, and at the same time get rid of their influences – so I did it by hitting abstraction. At the time the art scene here seemed to comprise of either international abstractionists or regional realists, and being an import, I fitted into the former camp.”
He explains his mid 1970s series, ‘Grids and tartans’ weren’t about tartans, just as his largest grid work, Lots of little landscapes (now held in the Te Papa Collection) wasn’t about landscape. “The tartan wasn’t anything to do with tartan; it was an excuse to make an abstract painting. I worked through that stage, then got into splatter painting in 1978. They were vastly successful, deliberately beautiful paintings, which were obviously influenced by Pollock and the English painter Ian Stephenson. But after a couple of sellout shows I decided I didn’t want to get pinned down painting that style all my life. I was very aware of the pitfalls of success, and being a modernist thinker, I started pushing off into different areas of abstraction.”
For a short period nothing worked for McLeod, then he met Auckland gallerist Petar Vuletic. “Just how much Vuletic guided me I don’t know, but I moved into minimalist abstraction, which occupied me for about six months. Realistically there were really only four decisions you had to make – the size of the canvas, the shape of the canvas, the colour of the work, and the size and direction of the brushstroke. It just wasn’t satisfying, so I started to shape the canvas and then the canvas went on the floor, leaned on the wall and overlapped. This took me in a different direction, with the floor and wall works picking up both landscape and figurative references.”
Throughout the 1980s and early 90s McLeod continued with these semi-sculptural, thickly coated works, applying the paint, which took months to dry, with a 12-inch paste brush. Then he reached a point where he was spending longer making the shaped, complex stretchers than actually painting them, so he switched to an iconic Kiwi product, plywood, and has used it ever since. The ability to cut the plywood into almost any shape meant that his works, while still mainly abstract, became more organic and biomorphic. Noses, hands, elbows and arms started to appear, and though the drawing marks in the paint were still unresolved, something not unlike Ripley’s Alien was struggling to burst through the surface.
In 1999 he made an ‘odd’ group of paintings he called the Shelf series, which was “Little shelves with daft still-lifes and painted-over plastic bottles – that sort of thing – stuck on. And as I was drawing up these shelf-shapes I drew one that looked like Mickey Mouse ears, and I automatically thought, ‘You can’t do that’ – and then I thought, ‘Here I am – someone who’s fought all my life against being told You can’t do that,’ so I went ahead with a few small paintings, and once I had the ears, you see eyes, a nose and mouth, and so Meet Mutant Mickey was born – my major transition work – and by 2002 all my work was completely figurative.”
Mickey and his crew hit the ground running – a couple of shows at Wellington’s Bowen Gallery in 2001/2 had Mickey centre stage, then slowly McLeod developed his pastiche of vaudeville-meets-Looney Tunes characters with an overlay of imagery and visual hooks from his early life in Glasgow.
In Dandini Comes Clean, the artist’s book published by PAULNACHE to coincide with the Auckland Art Fair, McLeod’s recent work is displayed in all its riotous exuberance. While the earlier works, like True Kiwi Content and Marking Territory (both from 2004), display a frenetic, jostling, leering palimpsest of heads, limbs, orifices, organs and excrescences – including a tartan-tongued Mickey-rat in a kilt, a giant-footed, mini-breasted Frankenstein and more bums, tongues and teeth than should be allowed on a gallery wall – his recent paintings display a more considered dialogue between his protagonists, though it could be argued that any conversation between a terrified Tweety Bird and a luridly-taloned ghoulish banshee lurking at its shoulder would in all likelihood be one-sided. This dichotomy of light and dark (as in Tweety and banshee with headache, 2009) is a familiar device of McLeod’s, and many of his figurative groupings sport a lurking dark presence, be it banshee, black-hatted cowboy villain, or just a dark, shapeless, ectomorphic blob insinuating itself through the work.
And the appearance of comic and cartoon characters has also increased, as McLeod explains in his 2006 artist’s statement, “The cartoon-inspired characters are familiar and initially endearing. They are sometimes benign and harmless but more often aggressive and with a dark underside. They can be unpleasant and violent but, as in a cartoon, nobody stays hurt or feels real pain. This is a painted reality. Everyone recovers.”
Fittingly, one of McLeod’s favourite villains, Badjin – a cowboy-hatted, black silhouette with only eyes and grimacing teeth visible – harks back to a comic strip from his youth. Scottish cartoonist Bud Neill created Lobey Dosser, a square-jawed Scottish sheriff keeping the peace in the American Wild West, and his nemesis, Rank Bajin (which is loose Glaswegian for ‘bad ‘un’), who was a similarly-endowed black eminence.
His other motifs can be more elusive. Ties and briefcases feature, which can be “emblems of subservience or power, depending on what’s in the briefcase, or the pattern on the tie,” McLeod says. “But to me the little man wearing a tie and clutching a briefcase is a sign of drudgery, not of power.”
Cowboy hats hover and take off, morphing into flying saucers. Critics are depicted as part mad-dog, part cheesy, subservient sock-puppet; pirates are caught cross dressing and stressed workers leap, half-naked out of shopping bags or slump pigeon-toed, puffing on their asthma-inhalers.
In the past five years McLeod has been keen on containers, and his dealer Matt Clarke remarks, “There’s been an explosion of suitcases, briefcases, wardrobes and boxes in the work, and the way we presented his work at the art fair was an extension
There was no shortage of bags and boxes on the stand. Mickey Mac and the Ghost of Countries Past unfolded out of a plaid-lined briefcase. Hiding in the cupboard had a grimacing figure in bloodstained overalls pouncing out of a yellow coffin with a red nightie hanging off the lid. At the art fair installation McLeod and Clarke juggled the figures daily, changing the interaction between the characters.
“I like other people to take over how the characters relate,” says McLeod. “I produce the work; they put the images together. I had one image of a cowboy with huge six-guns and when you put that next to Tweety Bird there’s a cartoon element, but if you put it next to a nude the Freudian implications are just so funny and so crass. I wouldn’t set it up that way in a show, but if somebody else wants to, that’s fine. I like pushing the boundaries of installation and letting people move the works around. I like to hand over control.”
And in his show at Auckland’s Bath Street Gallery a month after the Art Fair, McLeod paraded another comic-strip of characters fresh from his fertile imagination. Titled The Three Graces Struggle with the Goochi Handbag, he presented more cowboys, batmen, banshees and ogres with a few extra twists. As well as allowing his trademark interaction between the figures in Exquisite Choices – The Three Graces, he plays on the Surrealist game ‘exquisite corpse’ where artists added to a work and the previous artists’ contributions were hidden from them. In McLeod’s work the top and bottom halves of the figures are interchangeable, allowing the viewer to create their own work.
“My big ambition is to create a public gallery show where all the works are moveable and interchangeable, and the visitors can create their own works – it sets up a marvellous challenge,” he comments.
In the show he has also included several extremely small works, some on canvas, others cut-outs. Though being the artist he is these are not dashed off in an idle moment. “There is two summer’s work in the cut-outs,” he explains. “I like very small and very large works, and I work as seriously on the small works as the large ones. To me these little works can confront then embrace the viewer, pulling them in. I want to get the same intensity in the small paintings as I get in a large cut-out wall-work.”
Despite all the sculptural and installation elements of his recent work, McLeod ultimately sees himself as a painter. “I like the old fashionedness of painting; I like its hands-on nature; I like the crudeness – the shit on the floor. I’m trying to bring back into my work everything I’ve ever enjoyed.”
Slipping in the Blue Chip, by Rob McLeod is at PAULNACHE Gallery, Gisborne, 6 – 28 January, 2012.