Euan Macleod, Icefall, 2011, oil on canvas, 180 x 137cm
Fortitude and Altitude
Onwards and upwards! Poets of the mid-nineteenth century were not adverse to use of this idiomatic call to action, and most were concerned at whipping up some kind of religious fervour, but my favourite is from an address written by Frances Anne Kemble (1809-1893) to the young gentlemen graduates of the Lenox Academy in Massachusetts who were urged:
"Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin, But onward, upward till the goal ye win."
These are the young men who, no doubt, went on to be adventurers and explorers of strange and foreign lands, risking life, limb and family fortunes in the pursuit of, well, whatever it was they found.
Onwards and upwards! It is a fearless battle cry. A defiant stand against adversity. A declaration of intent. It is inspirational, encouraging, stirring. I will achieve, find purpose, gain success, aspire to excellence! I will climb mountains! But is there a small niggle of desperation, a false bravado, doubt? Would we really use this phrase if everything were infact going our way? Are we trying to be just a bit cheerful against the odds?
Macleod has chosen the title of his show knowing some, myself included, may be a little dubious about the connections he is drawing between the rousing cheer of a boy's own adventure and the artist's own career. But leave aside the clichéd interpretations, and we can see that onwards and upwards is exactly where the paintings in this exhibition lead us.
Euan is a bit of an adventurer himself, in his youth climbing the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and in recent years embarking on painting trips to NZ's north island, the rugged west coast of Tasmania, the Flinders Ranges, Alice Springs and of course Antarctica in 2009. Works produced as a direct result of these trips often contain a sense of location, plein air renditions of the landscape, but it is the particular experience of being in an unfamiliar or alien place that provides fodder for future works. It has been several years since Macleod sailed south and whilst these paintings are from what could loosely be termed the Antarctica series, they are somehow different from the works that have preceded them.
That they are ostensibly set in the white desert of Antarctica is not what we are asked to see. Instead we are shown Macleod's ever present figure in a much more psychological landscape. Of course we are struck by the majesty of such vastness, depth and height, rendered in an icy cool palette, but the mythic has returned. They are not just crossings of ravines and ice flows, but epic journeys to pinnacles of realisation, solitary expeditions to find essential truths within the metaphoric geography. The figure, which is a constant in Macleod's work, is in turn either dwarfed by the enormity of his environment or striding across the peaks of mountains, above the clouds.
These paintings are moving on. And up.
Antarctica is the highest continent in the world, with an average elevation of 2500 metres, compared with Australia at an average of 340 metres. In most cultures, one goes to the top of the mountain to get closer to one's chosen god, therefore, the experience of Antarctica could be quite a religious one.
Belay 2011 shows a climber being assisted to reach the summit. Not being the outdoorsy type, I had to look up the meaning of this climbing term. The 'belayer' ensures that the climber is fed enough rope to reach each subsequent anchor point, but not so much as they would injure themselves should they fall. In the painting, the belayer, surely impossibly perched on the edge, has a mythical stature. He is literally a higher self, coaching us to the top, providing guidance, encouragement and a solid anchor. When the climber reaches the pinnacle, I imagine he would be enjoying the view alone, as the belayer was, all the time, just his conscience or ego.
Other familiar motifs also appear in this group of paintings. The dinghy, oft used by Macleod as a reference to his father, is in several of these paintings. It is undeniably the boat that has brought him to the shores of this inhospitable land, forcing him to endure the challenges of the environment, and in Departure 2010-2011 is leaving him behind to survive as best he can. But I don't think there are any abandonment issues being explored here, more an acceptance of moving on to the next phase.
In works such as Climbers 2011 and Onwards and upwards 2010-2011, what seems to be a team of climbers could well be a single man painted and repainted in a kind of time-lapsed state as he makes progress towards his goal. The monastic lifestyle exhorts solitude and meditation as a way of finding our true selves. The figures sitting or lying in the snow do not have an air of dying about them. They are 'resting', finding restoration for mind and soul through the extreme privations of the body. In the silence of the snowfields, we are more aware of our own breath. Sitting on the edge of a precipice we face death just to know we are living.
There is an inner fortitude in these works. Something reassuring and mentally solid. Macleod has painted an allegorical exploration of the subconscious, about how we continue to strive for the next best thing despite the existential angst of not knowing why we bother. He must be an optimist. Onwards and upwards!
I won't mention the penguins.
Please contact the gallery to obtain a complete list of works or to arrange for a preview prior to the opening.
Fully illustrated catalogue available for $11 plus postage and handling.