John McMacken – “A Dander Down the Street”


How much should an artist guide the interpretation of his or her own artwork? And how can they go about doing it? It is tempting to treat artworks as surrogate Rorschach cards – as stimuli for our own projections - a way for us as viewers to give form to our unconscious or semi-conscious concerns. But this seems to me to be just as limiting as the opposite sort of approach that seeks some definitive or objective interpretation of the work – whether the basis of this uber-interpretation is some variant of psychoanalysis, social theory, identity politics, history, semiotics, or spiritual systematics.

John McMacken strikes a pretty good balance in this respect. A balance between providing guidance to the viewer while at the same time allowing us the freedom to fashion a personal journey from the images. He accomplished this by using his titles to provide a convenient on-ramp, and by using his accessible but ambiguous motifs to keep us from wondering too far off the track.

As the title of the show indicates, the theme of ‘street’ is central to the work. But McMacken uses ‘street’ not as some sort of a pointer to urban chic or to street-as-hood. His street is not the playground of the fashionable urbanite, nor is it  the unwelcoming domain of aggressive youth. His is the street that evokes nostalgia for the chalked hop-scotch ladder and the well-scrubbed doorstep – the street as a community of families. He embeds his work even more firmly in the local and personal with his use of the word ‘dander’, a term that is historically rooted in our towns and townlands, a term that also affirms the importance of travelling slowly, with full enjoyment of the path and the company.

His work is not political, at least not in a partisan capital ‘P’ sense, nor in any global or abstracted form. Neither is it based on religion, gender or class, or any of the social striations marked out by identity politics. It is more about community, family and relationships, and it is approached from the inside, from personal engagement. There are no polemics here – only a gentle and humorous affirmation of a heartfelt desire for peace and fellowship.

The work shows a strong affinity with lyrical abstraction. But it is not purely abstract. Even though some of the paintings can seem abstract at first glance it soon becomes obvious that the work strikes a balance between abstraction and figuration. Imagery emerges as we allow the paintings (and ourselves) to breathe. In fact, after a time we come to realise that although McMacken certainly seems to make decisions based on abstract or formal considerations, balancing direction, shape, texture and colour, his shapes are always depictions of figures, or of houses and things from his life-world, albeit depictions that are freed from a tight pursuit of illusion.

The paintings emit the earnest warmth of romanticism rather than ironic or classical cool. Although there is a mix of geometric and organic drawing, the geometric shapes are never sharp-edged or clinical. Rather, they evoke the worn lines of weathered houses, homes long lived in: windowsills eroded by countless cycles of winter and summer; doorsteps worn smooth by a million falls of foot; old walls with edges rounded off by thickly layered histories of paint and whitewash - and pretty much all of the straight lines are orthogonal, the lines of narrow winding streets and modest interiors, there are none of the strong diagonals we might get in panoramic landscape for instance.

Most of the drawing is organic, mainly evoking persons, often juxtaposed with plant forms, and sometimes readable interchangeably as either. However, the plant motifs give no impression of the rural. Some evoke the stubborn alley cats of the plant world that gain a foothold in the cracks and crevices between bricks and paving stones, the hardy plants that thrive untamed anywhere where city dust can accumulate deep enough to form even a thin soil.  Others evoke the contained growth of the pot-plants that we cosset and pamper to coax a tamed and pruned nature into our homes. Ornamental flora that we might own, but that we are also slave to if they are to survive.

We could see these contrasting tribes of plants as symbols for those aspects of our own nature that determine our personal relationships - that in turn shape our communities. Indeed, the more I look at the show the more I realise that there is a lot of room for such symbolism. But it is not heavy handed, I am reminded of William Empson’s discussion of the use of ambiguity in literature. We could probably find examples of each of his seven types in John McMacken’s work. But it is ambiguity suited to painting rather than writing. For his work, although replete with poetic reference, never surrenders to narrative – to the literary. We can see ambiguity clearly in the visual punning of the figure/plant forms; but we can also see it in the closed rectangles that could simultaneously stand for shelves holding plates or for windows framing a rising or setting sun; or we could see it in the spiralling curves that recur throughout the show and could be quoting from bronze age Celtic art – or referring to the unfurling fronds of a young fern - or even reminding us of Alfred Jarry’s image of Père Ubu.

We could also draw symbolism from other recurring forms and themes. The more we look the more we find; ovals – confined, suspended or contained – that could be fruit or pots or heads; titles that hint at reconciliation and redemption; runs and drips - traces of the artist’s aware and tolerant acceptance of the small accidentals of paint and painting. Any of these could be parlayed into significant meaning, taken as metaphor for elements of personal or universal concerns – or – they could simply be noticed and left untouched.

Overall, this work is rich in the artistic equivalent of what psychologist James Gibson called affordances. Essentially the show affords a space to explore. Not a trackless space, but a place where we can choose our own paths among the streets entries and alleyways that open up before us.

This is a show that, like each of the individual paintings, invites us to dander, to linger and to enjoy.


Des Edwards

April 2017