Dougal McKenzie: A Dream and an Argument, 30 June – 8 October, 2017, the MAC, Belfast

Installation, from the left: Set for Painting; History Painting; Eremite; Netherbow I; Netherbow II.


Whatever subject, motif, intention,  McKenzie  leans towards being a history painter born in  Scotland, a root  which he intensely identifies with as if it were palpably one living organism akin to a family.  With few exceptions, McKenzie frames and re-frames a memory  kernel by  abstract right angled areas, or by parallel brushstrokes  so dry as to almost evaporate (History Painting)   around a biomorphic, decidedly not isomorphic,  floating irregular shape.  That is an exception though.  The most severe case of importance of framing is the largest of the exhibits, Set for Painting ( Quad) due to the addition of wooden frame and a separate cover of the painting’s dorso, covering another painting,  invisible to the viewer. A slight imprint of a rectangle in its top area is a sign of a possible presence, an the empty frame as a lament about not yet born image.


At times the framing/nesting is more like an addition of two images above each other, without any comforting togetherness.  In the painting below, the top has its own re-framing in blue that separates it from the wall it crash-landed upon. It sits slightly in front of the bricks, bleeding some blue onto them, allowing an illusion the the wall continues behind it.

H.o.M. Painting, I, 2017 Oil on linen 240 x 190.5cm

The painter morphs history painting of old to be a journey, visiting, re-visiting a microcosms of his memory, its fragments akin the quantum theory of superposition.  “This painting began as a recollection of a high, whitewashed wall at the end of the garden I grew up knowing as a boy…The painting began as a close approximation of the garden as I remembered it, but changed significantly as I gradually  gave more prominence to the wall itself.” (Notes on Painting. Dougal McKenzie: A dream and an Argument, p 2)

McKenzie  adds that the top part of this “framed” painting appears both  as a wall and as a projection screen presenting an ambiguous  figure and a details from the cobbles of the jail where Captain John Porteous was jailed. Both refer to the historical event in Edinburgh 1736. The painting makes its utterance about the history with tension and friction, slipping from one meaning to another. McKenzie suggest the figure may be himself or Porteous.

Observed details, retained memory,  a story he reads or listens to,  is kept high up in McKenzie’s making of art, sincerely and with a force of  a conviction that it belongs to him and he to it.  Yet, he is not subservient to politics or nationalist ideology. Instead, he reconstructs  a story, happening, event, or experience with the  passion of a lover of painting  inspired by life – importantly, in the past tense.

The lower part of the painting is a wall  fading in the last rays of a sunset. It has no justification in relation to the “projection screen” above – that part could have been on its own. There is one powerful motif for placing it, almost mechanically, inside the same painted frame.  The fading wall  creates a tragic dissonance with the jail story  by making it impossible to see, to  know what is behind it…. for ever. Eternal nightfall.

That jail story  appears once more as a straightforward narrative in the composition illustrated below. Nightfall, heart symbol, triple framing tasked with suggesting depth, reminiscent of Velasquez solution  in Las Meninas.   Both moving bodies are drawn with a superb command of fluent modelling while thinning the volume to transparency. History told and  illustrated is bereft of substance?  What is included is sufficient and necessary to lead the viewer’s attention to a source. Or so the painter decides.

H.o.M Painting II, 2017, oil on linen, 240×190.5 cm



He seems to make fragments of past the salient sine qua non of an image.  Placing the then  of the story with the now of selected hues and tones and brush strokes  does not guarantee an immersive experience for the viewer.  More often than not,  these paintings  seem to refuse to become sensual – in the sense described by Nietzsche.  They are rarely intoxicating (  in two cases and only  at certain distance from the picture plane the hues emanate light : in Set for Painting, the blue painting with the umbrella and this small image, its red reminiscent of Matisse’s red that emanates light)

Leith Sauna Fauvist, 2017, oil on linen, 46x55cm

This exhibition is faithful to the Apollonian  principle. It leans away from the power of its opposite.


The two concepts link art and nature, art and society by alternating between knowledge and imagination.

Comparable dual attitude  to the mix of art and life had been at the the birth of  western art history. It started as the stories of life of each artist.Italian painter, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari  born in 1511, published what is regarded as the first art historical text, known as ‘The Lives’. It featured biographies of mostly Italian Renaissance artists – Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian among many others. The  British Museum has a copy of the second edition from 1568.

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Vasari’s take on art history feeds into McKenzie’s concept giving fragments of his own life experience, even a vague and uncertain memory upper hand.  I cannot be certain that the painter recognizes that link at all times.   Having followed his paintings for decades now, I am certain that his subjects have to do with his life, his watching films, television, reading, travelling, listening.  Reminiscent of an approach proposed by   Sainte-Beauve (Charles Augustin, 1804 -1869) which may have filtered down to McKenzie during his undergraduate studies.  Sainte-Beauve  conceived an idea that art is best understood when  focusing on extensive data concerning the  character, family background, physical appearance, education, religion, love affairs and friendships,etc.,of the artist/writer, so much that it provoked  allegations that he was providing merely biographical explanations of literary phenomena. It has been a  standard method of historical criticism ever since. Happily, different approaches are at present  tolerated even in some anglophonic writing on contemporary art.   McKenzie may feel uncomfortable with a suggestion that his paintings are  auto-biographical. My contention is that they tell the story of his interests, of his knowing of fragments of the past or taking film or photographs or other paintings as  templates for a new image. What he paints includes parts of his  experience/ memory  formed  before he puts brush to the canvas.  I sense that it may be  linked to his endeavour to keep his sincerity in unassailable condition.

McKenzie also  merges history with memory, remembering for example, his young son running, on the right hand side here.  He calls it, significantly, a History Painting, here on the right.

On the left: Set for Painting (Quad), 2017, oil on linen, 275x50x192x199cm; On the right: History Painting, 2017, oil on linen, 240×184.7cm


I mentioned already earlier, that the  inside out umbrella,  at certain viewing distance morphs into a sparkling diamond with dust surrounding it, and that on the back of this canvas is another hidden image, covered with pink textile. It has ever been present to the maker, not to the visitor of the exhibition.  Why to exhibit it under a cover at the back of another painting? Exhibiting a painting  is making it present to the others, to the world. Exhibiting it under a cover replaces that by making it present to the artist (creator) himself – perhaps reaching intensity  of something to be  yet born.  Not yet alive, without knowing what and when. Being completely alive is thought of as a task to be (or not to be) accomplished. ( Parallel to some ideas proposed by Anne Dufourmantelle in The Ideology of Security, 2011.)  McKenzie’s  decision to frustrate viewing  is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s  Etant Donnes 1946 -1966 (Étant_donnés

The idea to remove art from display that facilitates visibility  is still felt not only confrontational, but also dated. At present, the curators  drive forward  ideas like ” equilibrium and engagement”  announced for example for  the 2018 Sydney Biennale .It is a call for intimate viewing of details as presented, inter alia, by   Mit Jai Inn  (born 1960, Thailand)who  will participate in the 21st Biennale of Sydney next year.

Mit Jai Inn, Junta Monochrome #1, 2016, oil on canvas, 800 x 800cm x 50cm, photo: Jirat Ratthawongjirakul

Abstraction and illusion, stain and relief, canvas like a carpet or tablecloth – defy the conventional boundaries in order  to achieve an immersive experience that is self-directed, an experience of access and openness.

There is one painting in this exhibition which sets itself  near  an immersive experience.

Eremite,2016/17, oil on linen. 185.5 x 151.5 cm

Its lower part  is evenly lit, wholesome and dreamlike, plants captured with the lightness of chinese  calligraphy. The heavily modelled man is about to fall …The highlighted, aggressively decorated ring holds him like a magnet, to prevent such destruction of the mute poetry below.

In his notes for the exhibition, McKenzie offers the clearest evidence for my  proposition  of this art being auto-biographical, that he paints what he knows of, what he experiences even if on a kind of removal:

” It began with the upturned figure at the top floating the correct way up, in the middle of the water. At the later stage in the painting, I decided to invert the figure and move it partially out of the frame. As a result, this could be read as a reflection of someone who is actually out of the frame of the picture, or a Chagall-like method of suggesting a dreaming figure floating in the air. The strong  turquoise greens and blues suggesting algae, and the thistle-like silhouettes in the grass, were actually observed by me on a walk around St Margaret’s Loch, another location featured in Walter Scott’s ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian’. Standing at this exact spot, you can view, but out of frame of the painting, the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel on the side of Arthur’s Seat (the extinct volcano in the centre of Edinburgh). One of the St. Anthonys was known as The Eremite, or Hermit. The floating figure is taken from a scene in ‘The Swimmer'(1968) a movie reference I have wanted to use for some time. I have always thought the adventure of the plot of ‘The Swimmer’ (originally a short story by John Cheever) is like the adventure of painting: altogether strange and unknowable in terms of where you are trying to get to,  and what it is you are trying to remember”

McKenzie’s brushstroke is rarely this sensual, at the same time never so tight as to forbid the charm of the split of the second light touching a face or a fold in the garment.   I find the addition of frivolous abandon in construction of depth both optimistic and charming. (see the spatial relationship of the circle and the man’s left arm, he is carrying whatever it is, as if unaware, nonchalantly, in the painting below.)

An Argument (Flowers for the Prisoner), oil on linen, 195 x 213 cm

McKenzie  defies  conventions  of history painting by merging it with the intensely personal evocation. In the above composition the idea of a “wall transfigures into an interior with a lamp shade, window behind. High key is deprived of its sparkling power, dry out like pressed flowers.  The composition places a half figure where in medieval painting is a  predella with a substory. McKenzie writes:”The section at the bottom is in fact taken directly from the movie “The Parallax view” (1974) …This painting came early in the series and is in fact a reworking of an image I’d tried out some years ago.” He continues saying that he had in mind a story  of a wrongly sentenced  Effie Deans.  The two figures, in the main part of the image, represent her talking to her suitor Reuben Butler.

After D McKenzie read this post he kindly corrected me in a comment: “Dear Slavka, in the section on An Argument (Flowers for the Prisoner) you describe the two upper figures as being that of Effie Deans and Reuben Butler. They in fact perhaps represent Jeanie Deans, her sister, and Reuben Butler. Effie is perhaps the figure below.”  (Added on 05/09 2017)

McKenzie is sincere about his sources, but keeps under wraps  an insecure doubt how to translate his adventure of painting to the viewer.  These two paintings, twins in spirit, break  structural logic, by exploding partly defined right angled order, by breaking continuity, by inviting  irrational world   to seep  into the rational one.  These are battle scenes of senses.  Not surprisingly his Notes on Painting are silent about both these images.   Having them installed as twins – they oblige to open to suggestions.   The multicoloured areas in their top half continue from the left painting to the right  one as if unfazed by having the wall gap between them.  Having avoided any narrative hyperbolic link, the eye is happy to guess and play.  The verbal story becomes secondary to the  painted one, told by  hues, tones, light and shadow, hot and cold, smooth and spiky … the ghostly figures are  almost erased or on the way out, possibly the accentuate that these images are not anthropomorphic as history is, yet they are about humans on this earth, possibly present some time ago.  Dreamlike figures in a floating state… see through and not bounded by a particular time.  Superposition.


From the left: Netherbow I (Mob), 2016/17; Netherbow II (Mob), 2016/17; both oil on linen, 195 x 21.3 cm

Inspired by Walter Scott’s “The Heart of Mid-Lothian” (1818), the story of Porteous Riots of 1736 – they take a leave  to transform a history onto an experience. Poetry knows about such transformation.  I just read this helpful paragraph:  In “Why Poetry?” (Ecco), out this summer, Matthew Zapruder defines a poet as a writer who is prepared “to reject all other purposes, in favour of the possibilities of language freed from utility.” Where people who are puzzled by poetry go wrong, he thinks, is in expecting poems to say something straightforward about life, to be useful. Poems are really about language—ultimately, about the impossibility of fixed meanings.

Not far from McKenzie’s words quoted above  on the adventure of painting   as ” altogether strange and unknowable”….

Images courtesy MAC and  Simon Mills.

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay, review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Dougal McKenzie: A Dream and an Argument, 30 June – 8 October, 2017, the MAC, Belfast

  1. Dear Slavka, in the section on An Argument (Flowers for the Prisoner) you describe the two upper figures as being that of Effie Deans and Reuben Butler. They in fact perhaps represent Jeanie Deans, her sister, and Reuben Butler. Effie is perhaps the figure below.


  2. Pingback: Review by Slavka Sverakova – DOUGAL McKENZIE

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