February: tree skeletons
Updated: Feb 18, 2019
February can be beautiful, particularly in the morning when the sky is clear and the day feels like it is slowly revealing itself through the presence of trees which, just for a few months, have shown us their skeletons. I used to find winter quite hard but I see much more of its potential now, particularly in the morning when we can really see the shape of things - the landscape stripped back to its bare essentials, everything wrapped in sheets of cold and light, creating the new. Waiting for the train to work, I think about ways of describing these changes and contrasts in the landscape and the flow of ideas through the light and the trees..
Andrew MacKenzie's paintings beautifully describe this kind of landscape imagery, particularly at times of day when light is either opening or fading and entering our environments. In 2010, we talked about his method of painting landscapes which partly involves the act of remembering landscape elements through creating dense, painted imagery of tree skeletons. Andrew gradually applied layers of oil paint but at the same time removed layers, revealing interesting marks and memories. Fragmentary landscape elements appear, like the roots of trees or the delicate structure of leaves, through a slow, concentrated method of working. Andrew also used words in this period to evoke a sense of what was present within the landscape. In one of his silver point drawings, the word "yellow plastic"appears, recalling the position and colour of an artificial object in a landscape. In another work, the word "transmission" appears, evoking a sense of the passage of sound over miles of landscape whilst people speak on the telephone or our connection more generally to the flow of urban and landscape lines around us.
LG: Do you paint outdoors Andrew or remember the landscapes and go back to the studio?
AM: When I started at art college in the late 80’s I would go outside drawing and painting a lot. Gradually this changed as I became more interested in abstract painting, such as Robert Ryman, realising that nature didn’t have to be ‘depicted’ as such. I chose not to paint outdoors because the work is partly about the act of remembering, which involves a degree of invention, and the construct of landscape itself. It was a fusion of memory and invention, bringing together the inner idea of a place and the outer. I use small black notebooks which I write in and make very small quick drawings, some of which later feed in. I write down words a lot, which help to give me direction. Recently though, since 2017, I have started working outside again, and have been making relatively quick charcoal drawings as studies- an activity which I love. The paintings are still made in the studio, but this directness and immediacy is feeding in – this is due to my growing awareness of the phenomenology of being in a landscape, and the importance of the exchange which happens when you experience a place directly. It’s not entirely a mental phenomenon – it is rooted in your body, your senses and your place in the world. I still sometimes feel separate from it, but this is only a feeling. I think my work is a way of working through these things – painting is a very physical process, and ideas often come through the making.
LG: Do you revisit places you particularly like or explore unknown places in the landscape?
AM: Yes, I often go back to the same places. All the work begins with a real experience of somewhere I've been. I don't make reference to the actual specific place in the title of the piece, because I think they extend beyond, and become more, through the process of painting. In other words, as much as they have something to do with landscape, they also have a lot to do with the act of painting, and the discoveries which happen through the process. In terms of unknown places, I am always aware if I visit new places which have a certain feeling which I respond to, filing things away for future reference, or taking pictures. Recently I have focused more on the rural area around where I live in the Scottish Borders, especially the woods between my house and studio. I had a show with Sarah Myerscough in 2017 called Temporary Structures, which was based on the 1 km around where I live.
LG: What kind of paint you use - do you also use drawing materials?
AM: I always use artist quality oil paint for the paintings. I also use silverpoint (drawing on a prepared surface with silver wire. It was used a lot in the Renaissance, but became unpopular with lead and graphite). In the past, I used pencil and biro a lot in conjunction with oil paint. Recently I have been exploring the possibilities of charcoal again, as mentioned above. One day a friend turned up at the studio door with a burnt piece of dodgy looking tin foil. He had made charcoal from local willow – there’s something lovely about drawing with burnt sticks. I have a large drawing called Frozen Pond in a show called ALIGHT at the RSA now, drawn partly with this charcoal.
LG: Have you always painted or did you rediscover it?
AM: I began drawing and painting at an early age, and discovered quickly that I loved it. From maybe 12 or 13 I painted constantly, and realised that it was what I wanted to do. I've never really had any doubt as far as I can remember as to what I wanted to do - it's always been art. I've always had this natural inbuilt need to do it. I'm 49 now, and it's as strong as ever, if not more so. This is despite the fact that sometimes it's really hard to carry on practically.
Since talking to Andrew in 2008, his work has developed to show a greater concern for viewpoints, urban edges, and temporary structures within landscapes. In the group of work, Edge Field Painting, 2014-15, the edges of landscape planes are suggested through the perspective of looking up. The opportunity of distant landscape, the certainly of continuous landscape planes are suggested here, juxtaposed against bright lines and viewports which feel like he is marking the foundations of line, found through the chaos of landscape space. Similarly in Buildings, Hides and Verges, 2013, urban platforms feel like they are finding form through the structure of trees. I'm thinking particularly of Bernat Klein Studio in Snow, where the structure of the implied studio has no foundation save for the trees form and the passage of snow underneath it.
Andrew had a recent solo exhibition with Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary, in October 2018 and is currently working on as Project Artist for the Hawick Flood Protection Scheme, a major public art initiative. I'm interested to hear about his public art work particularly which is community engaged and linked to environmental concerns for the flood protection of Hawick.
LG: What are you making at the moment Andrew?
AM: Right now, I’m busier than I’ve ever been, Lucy. I’m working on a commission for a large piece for Marchmont House in The Scottish Borders, based on an arts and crafts Victorian hothouse. I will also be, for the first time, creating a large scale outdoor work to be sited in the grounds. Marchmont House has an incredible collection of arts and crafts objects, as well as British Modernism, such as Hepworth, Chadwick, Gormley and David Nash.
I have solo shows coming up with the And Gallery in Edinburgh in October 2019, and with Sarah Myerscough in 2020.
The public art project is the result of my work over 2 years as Project Artist with the Hawick Flood Protection Scheme – a £44 million (and rising) project to protect the town from flooding and is a collaborative piece with the artists Gill Russell and Alec Finlay. This has many interesting resonances for me – one being the hard engineered solution to a problem which is getting worse due to climate change. I am focusing the project, (from all the community engagement) on the rivers, waters, burns and sikes which form the river catchment and watershed. It will be 2 large plasma cut corten steel panels showing the vast river network (which resembles veins or tree roots) situated inside the wall itself at a flood gate. This will be partnered by 38 2.5m glass panels situated through the centre of the town showing all the tributaries, with text showing the names of the waters and poems by Alec Finlay. For every tributary, we will plant a tree and label it up on the tributaries themselves, directing attention to the issues upstream. Sensitive tree planting is one solution to flooding – a focus on soft engineering and better land use. The triburatries resemble trees and I am drawing out that relationship.
I'm really looking forward to seeing Andrew's new public work at Hawick which is interesting to consider not only for its social and ecological benefits but for the fact that his journey into making it began with landscape painting and is now protecting landscape through integrating a work into the flood barrier and the planting of more trees.