Where We Belong
The Scottish Highlands offer a suitably atmospheric, picturesque and evocative location for Mackie’s latest body of work, Where We Belong (2016). It is a place that the artist knows well, having grown up with views of hills and fields on every side of his family home in the Cairngorms. It is a landscape that he himself views not through romantic eyes, however, but rather in terms of more practical concerns – how long will it take to walk through to the other side of the valley before nightfall; how marshy are the moorlands and must they be circumnavigated or can they be traversed on foot; how perilous is the icy snow that covers the scree that spills down the hillsides. It is a treacherous place for the ill-prepared rambler or dewy-eyed sightseer, and even presents dangers for the locals if they let down their guard for a moment against the harsh daily challenges of living in such a place.
In Merlin (2016), the artist depicts a burnt-out, dilapidated small stone dwelling – it looks like it might be very old, slashed and burned by Vikings or a rival clan, perhaps, but it turns out it is not so ancient as it might appear. Its owner had thrown some ashes from his hearth out of the back door before going out for the evening, only to return home to discover his home burnt to the ground. With few options open to him, he bought a caravan which he parked alongside the back wall of the house, and moved into that. Mackie captures the heart-breaking scene at dusk on a foggy evening, the low-lying dark grey mist hanging over the cottage as if clouds of smoke from the fire. Part of the caravan has been cut away, exposing the interior. We don’t see the owner inside, making do in his potentially long-term temporary accommodation; instead we see something quite unexpected – a glorious golden sunset over a very different kind of landscape: one that looks decidedly reminiscent of the American Midwest. The warm orange glow, which, from a distance or on first glance might appear like a lamp or bright candle, implies a warmth and cosiness that is otherwise entirely absent in the scene. The indoor sunset, like a 70s photographic mural, is incongruous to say the least, verging on the surreal or metaphysical. Mackie has filled a spatial void with an open-ended metaphor, a signifier that is open to our imaginations, to our interpretation. Here, in the pitiable shadow of the charred shell of the man’s home, there is something unusual, something special taking place, the precise nature of which we can’t quite guess – an element of mystery and magic that is captured in the work’s title.
The caravan is a motif that spans, and indeed defines, the whole body of work, appearing in a variety of beautiful, sometimes dramatic, sometimes haunting Highland environments, and always surrounded by a thick grey mist. These aren’t the caravans of your average holidaymaker, however, as they all seem to have seen better days. Undoubtedly some caravan enthusiasts would be able to discern which models they might be, from which manufacturer, which country and year, but to the layman they look like they probably date between the 1960s and 1980s, and are a far cry from contemporary state-of-the-art caravan design. Each conveys a sense of nostalgia through their modernist retro shapes and colours – colours which interact surprisingly harmoniously with the eerily subdued palettes of the landscapes surrounding them – though to be holidaymaking in any of these today would be glamping without the glamour. They are all of the kind that is towed by another vehicle, and all look like they might have been abandoned – though perhaps only recently so, as while they are battered and worn, they are not overgrown in the way that nature has a tendency to do to man-made things when left to its own devices.
The caravans are so picturesquely positioned that one might go so far as to suggest that they have been deliberately left in these places, as if with a clear intention in mind. It would not be inconceivable that such caravans could be used as ad-hoc shelters by grouse or pheasant hunters, birdwatchers, hillwalkers or other special-interest groups who spend long periods of time in the landscape, but this just doesn’t quite ring true here. There is something quietly disturbing about the presence of these caravans, poised somewhere between melancholy and malfeasance. The series of paintings is highly cinematic or televisual in nature, as if carefully contrived scenes or sets, and the viewer might struggle to resist looking to impose filmic narratives on each work – narratives that might involve thriller-style wrong-doing such as abduction or murder, but could equally take us into the realms of horror, science-fiction and the paranormal. Mackie’s accomplished painterly realism only serves to enhance this blurring of the real world and fiction.
And of course, we must face the elephant in the room here – just as in Merlin, the caravans in each of the other paintings in the series also have half of their sides cut away to reveal otherworldly scenes within them. Each unexpected scene is a sunset over a landscape, the sun glowing in the sky from bright white to hazy yellow, golden orange to umber-tinged red, evocative of great Romantic landscape paintings by the likes of Turner, Claude, Lieste or, more pertinently, Hudson River School painters such as Bierstadt, Cole or Church. The scenes are depicted as if flat on the interior back wall of the caravan, but the most curious thing – and the painterly device that really takes these works towards the metaphysical – is that the suns inside the caravans are casting light onto the floors of the caravans and even, sometimes, onto the ground outside. These interior scenes, while they look like painted landscapes, cannot be painted or printed images like wallpaper or murals – they must surely either be screens or projections of some kind, with light coming through them, or the artist is implying that they are actually real, like apparitions of, or portals from, another time and place.
While most viewers would be forgiven for not having registered the following piece of information, eagle-eyed aficionados of American Westerns might have spotted that a number of the interior sunsets are actually scenes from well-known movies from this genre, including From Dusk till Dawn (1996), The Searchers (1956), and Django Unchained (2013), giving some credence to the idea that we are looking at digital screens of some kind. This might suggest there is some high-tech equipment inside these shabby old caravans, though pondering this for a moment longer, the scenario is perhaps not all that dissimilar to all those Westerns playing on Scottish television sets in houses, caravans and mobile homes for the past half a century. But, and assuming that these sunsets are intended more as metaphor than literal optical phenomena, it might make sense to conceive of Mackie’s paintings as depictions of an exotic imaginary, and maybe even one sitting – with a postmodern twist – inside yet another exotic imaginary. For most of us who do not live in such beautiful landscapes – whether glens in the Scottish Highlands or the homesteads of the American Midwest – they are both places onto which we can project fantasies of escapism from urban and suburban modern life, albeit of very different kinds. In this way, the caravans become metaphors, talismans or time machines, even, for unfulfilled dreams of travel and adventure, of journeying to picturesque panoramas of other people’s worlds. The caravans were once somebody’s attempt to experience such landscapes first hand, to live within these landscapes, if only for a while. Sad, neglected and worn out, the caravans are now humble visions of everyday hopes and ambitions that once seemed real or were achievable for a time, or maybe that never really came to be. The warm, glowing, enticing apparitions from another place suggest that hope has not entirely gone, though, and as Mackie’s title reassuringly implies, even if we might dream of elsewhere, we are perhaps already where we’re meant to be.
One of the art world’s great rivalries came to a head at London’s Royal Academy in 1832. JMW Turner visited the galleries on its annual Varnishing Day, when exhibiting artists put finishing touches to their work. After seeing how the vivid hues of one of John Constable’s paintings overshadowed Turner’s Helvoetsluys hanging adjacent, the latter picked up a brush and, in full view of the gathered artists, placed a daub of red paint in his own work, animating his maritime scene to such an extent that Constable’s painting suddenly paled in comparison. In so doing, he brought the professional antagonism between the two painters into the public sphere, setting the stage for ensuing artists who now air their rivalries via global media.
Turner ‘fired a gun’ in the form of a daub of paint. Contemporary artists have done so through words uttered to the press. In a remarkable series of new paintings, the Scottish artist Mackie revisits both the words and images related to some of the more infamous art world squabbles that have followed in Turner and Constable’s wake, including those between David Hockney and Damien Hirst, and Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Indeed, the title of two of the new paintings, as well as that of the exhibition itself – You Were Shit in the ‘80s – derives from Freud’s description of Bacon’s work of that decade as ‘ghastly,’ a sentiment Bacon in turn shared for Freud’s later work.
Mackie’s latest paintings restage the trivial rivalries and immense cultural status of these artists and others, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who publicly argued with not one, but three of his contemporaries: John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, and Oscar Wilde. However, they do so in arenas far removed from the pages of the tabloid newspapers, compelling us to look anew at the representation and effect of friction. Mackie relocates a renowned work by each artist – and thus, symbolically, their attendant feuds – to secluded and desolate buildings, continuing the ‘Abandoned Dollhouse’ theme he began in 2013. In You Were Shit in the ‘80s, Part 1 (Lucian Freud), he removes a panel from the back of a dilapidated Victorian building in Toxteth to reveal one of Freud’s largest paintings of a female nude, Standing by the Rags (1988-9), which normally resides in London’s Tate Britain. Surrounded by broken-paned windows and soot-stained bricks, Freud’s nude peers out of the meticulously delineated structure onto a field of overgrown weeds. Yet while a sense of isolation pervades the scene, the museum-like display and illumination of Freud’s painting implies the presence of another: the artist’s rival, the viewer of Mackie’s painting, or both.
In fact, …Part 1’s companion piece, You Were Shit in the ‘80s, Part 2 (Francis Bacon) suggests a dialogue between the two works. In …Part 2, Mackie plucks Francis Bacon’s Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) from the Tate collection and re-houses it in a disused asylum for men near Glasgow. The artist, who began drawing at an early age and sketched incessantly throughout his childhood to achieve perfect scale, demonstrates superb draughtsmanship in his depiction of a bleak, uninhabited building with boarded-up windows. A missing panel unveils Bacon’s triptych, each section spot-lit as if formally exhibited. Although the locations represented within You Were Shit in the ‘80s parts 1 and 2 are over 200 miles apart, Mackie suggests congruence between the two paintings through his palette, his rendering of the buildings, and the similarity of the fields they overlook. We may even imagine the two paintings within the paintings facing each other from across the field. Mackie accentuates the conflict inherent in such a scenario by not only highlighting the friction between the two artists, but also the discord between the foreboding structures and the land they inhabit, and between their deteriorated state and the prized artworks they contain.
In contrast, the artworks that animate All by My Own Hand, Part 1 (David Hockney) and All by My Own Hand, Part 2 (Damien Hirst) occupy very different spaces. Moreover, they seem destined never to meet, as if in recognition of the one-sided nature of the spat to which they allude. In 2012, David Hockney advertised his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy with the claim, ‘All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally,’ a dig at Damien HIrst and his extensive use of assistants. Hirst, however, never responded publicly to Hockney’s criticism.
All by My Own Hand, Part 1 recreates Hockney’s Portrait of Nick Wilder (1966) on the upper floor of Lancaster Services’ Grade II-listed Pennine Tower, its image of a sun-drenched Californian swimming pool echoed by the sunlight hitting the side of Mackie’s tower. The area around the service station is deserted, yet the lawn is well manicured, denoting care rather than abandonment. Hirst’s celebrated The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), on the other hand, stands forgotten in an anonymous country barn. Unlike the Bacon and Freud paintings in You Were Shit in the ‘80s, neither of the works in All by My Own Hand receive special lighting or display; neither seems to presume an audience. Nevertheless, Mackie’s imaginative use of architecture, exquisite handling of paint, and re-staging of canonical works of art throughout You Were Shit in the ‘80s entice viewers to look again at the sparks that fire artists at their best and, perhaps, at their worst.