Walking the land
Trans-Tasman artist Euan Macleod spends a week on Waiheke Island, painting, talking and collaborating with fellow artist Gregory O’Brien. Dan Chappell listens in.
A week after interviewing expatriate artist Euan Macleod, I found myself standing on a mountain on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula – Macleod’s childhood stamping ground – and for a moment I felt as if I’d stepped into one of his paintings. Ahead the land sloped down to the town of Akaroa, and in the distance the sharp gouges of Sleepy and Otanerito Bays were glimpsed through misty cloud; for a brief time I felt like I was on top of the world. Preparing for the interview, I’d read Gregory O’Brien’s recent publication, Euan Macleod: The Painter in the Painting, and looking down at the folds, furrows, scars and indentations spreading out from my viewpoint made me appreciate where Macleod’s unique vision was nurtured.
From his early, spare, angular, almost visceral figures posing in anonymous urban spaces, Macleod now imposes his Everyman on an ever-changing landscape – from the burnt orange rock and white-hot sky of the Australian outback, to the crinkled coastline of New Zealand and jagged ice-mountains of Antarctica – the naked form often strides away from the viewer, stooped under an invisible burden. At other times the figure leans over a table or in front of an easel, painting incongruous scenes – a yacht under sail depicted on the canvas – while the painter stands in a scorched brown desert scape.
Born in Christchurch, Macleod grew up close to the Port Hills and Lyttelton Harbour. His father Roy was an amateur boat-builder, and one of Macleod’s earliest childhood memories is of a substantial keeler, which his father spent five years building in the family living room, being removed via the French windows at the front of the house. He studied towards a DFA (Painting) at Canterbury University, where his teachers included Bill Sutton and Ted Bracey, and in 1981 moved to Sydney, where he has lived for the past 30 years.
He recalls, “When I first went to Sydney, painting wasn’t cool – the main players were all conceptual artists. But painting is what I love, and it was one of the reasons I moved to Australia. It’s big enough to allow you to do what you want – there were enough galleries prepared to sell paintings, and enough people to buy them. It’s a far bigger market, and you can be quite anonymous, but in a funny way I’ve loved the fact that I’ve never been that fashionable, though I feel I’ve done quite well.”
“Quite well” is a considerable understatement. The first work to sell at Macleod’s 1982 sellout show at Watters Gallery in Sydney, was bought by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, who promptly gifted it to the Wollongong Art Gallery. In 1999 Macleod won the Archibald Prize with Self-portrait: head like a hole, and he has since won the Sulman Prize, the Blake Prize, Tattersall’s Landscape Prize twice, and was a finalist in the Wynne Prize. He exhibits widely in Australia and New Zealand, has works in many public collections and a major survey show, Surface Tension: the art of Euan Macleod 1991-2009, has toured regional galleries in eastern Australia for the past year.
Macleod returns to New Zealand regularly to visit family and exhibit at his two New Zealand galleries – Bowen in Wellington and Brooke/Gifford in Christchurch. However, he recalls returning for a residency at the University of Canterbury in 1994 with less enthusiasm. “Ted Bracey invited me over, but when I arrived they didn’t know what to do with me. At the time they saw painting more as a craft and seemed to be trying to get rid of it. It was somewhat offensive in that I’d gained something of a reputation in Australia by then, but I had the sense that what I was doing was seen as an anachronism… letting the side down by doing something old-fashioned. They didn’t want overseas visitors to think badly of our art; they wanted people to come and see how ‘modern’ our art was.”
During his most recent visit to New Zealand in November 2011 the attitude is quite different. The occasion is the Waiheke Book Festival and Macleod and writer/artist Greg O’Brien are on the island doing a ‘mini-residency’ and giving readings from The Painter in the Painting as part of the festival.
They are based in a barn near Oneroa, on Waiheke Island, and when the fickle spring weather permits they head out for en plein air sessions around the island. On the barn wall, Macleod has several works in progress – a series of seven studies on paper for a larger work he intends to complete in Australia, and some black and white sketches that will form part of a limited-edition artist’s book he is producing in collaboration with writer Lloyd Jones and Townsville-based printmaker Ron McBurnie.
He paints quickly, moving seamlessly from sheet to sheet, as he discusses his concept of place. “What tends to happen is that I respond to certain types of landscape, and some of the works I do in-situ tend to be specifically about the place, like these Waiheke sketches, and some recent works I did while on holiday in Thailand. But when I get back to the studio that drops away – the figures aren’t anyone in particular; neither are the landscapes. I like the fact that for me it can be Lyttelton but someone else might think it’s Melbourne. You keep the work open for as many people as you can.”However, he acknowledges that sometimes his subtle shifts of location can be elusive for the viewer. “People looked at some of my recent works and said, ‘I see you’re still painting Antarctica’ – where I visited in early 2010. Then I looked at the works and felt, no, I’m not actually painting Antarctica, I’m painting icebergs but they’ve morphed more into memories of mountainous parts of New Zealand. It becomes more of an internal rather than an external place.”
In discussing O’Brien’s book, Macleod is openly satisfied with the content and direction, though it’s plain he’s been less happy with other art writers in the past. Perhaps the imagery he tends to favour has meant critics tend to join the dots too hastily. Is the faceless figure with an indistinct head symbolic of his late father’s Alzheimer’s disease? Do the recurring motifs of dinghies and yachts have a defining meaning?
Referring to the 2007-8 oil, Dinghy in desert, O’Brien writes, “At one remove, the boat is the skeleton of his father half-buried in the desert. The painting might also be read as an attempt to refloat a boat long gone down: the vessel of childhood.”
Macleod agrees the ambivalence inherent in his works is vitally important. “One problem with a lot of writers is they describe my work, which I find can be quite limiting. Once they say, ‘There’s a huge, oppressing figure in a landscape’ it limits the work for other viewers. People see my work differently – it could be a normal-sized figure in a scaled-down landscape, and is it really dark and oppressing? Who knows?”
But one thing is certain – Macleod loves to paint, and has the ability to capture on canvas that elusive ‘isness’ of both the Australian and New Zealand landscape. O’Brien sees Macleod as a true exponent of ‘Australasian’ art, writing: “to the good fortune of both countries, this artistic dual-citizenship has rendered him ambidextrous rather than conflicted”. He then explores this engaging dichotomy further. “When Macleod’s images do beg the nationalistic question, they are purposefully oblique or, at the very least, open-ended – as is the case with Barrow man, in which a hunched figure is shifting a mound of mineral-rich Australian soil down a miniature version of the South Island of New Zealand. We are left to work out for ourselves what exactly the task is that both painter and subject have set themselves.”
Macleod also maintains that ambivalence about his own sense of belonging, commenting, “As to whether I relate more strongly to one country or the other is a question I don’t want to answer – more important is that the artist has to feel passionate about what they’re doing. When I’m painting I find I get into another place, and there’s nothing more joyful when you find you’re in that space, and it all starts to flow, and you ‘are’ the painting.
That’s where memory is so important – something that happens in the painting throws you somewhere – those marks come together in a way where something happens, and you don’t have much control over it. Philip Guston once said something that sums it up for me: ‘When you’re in the studio painting there are a lot of people in there with you – your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics… and one by one, if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting, you walk out.’”
Euan Macleod’s next New Zealand exhibition is in late September 2012 at Bowen Galleries, Wellington.