Euan Macleod

In the King Street Gallery on William show, Summit Road, Euan Macleod offers glimpse encounters with elemental beings. He's interested in humans, and landscapes, as the two meld, and disintegrate into one another. Such "ghosts" are not immobile, immutable hauntings of place, but flickers of motion.

Modern masters such as Francis Bacon and Peter Booth render humans moving shadows, blended with their environs. Euan Macleod charts a different path.

In his early masterpieces, for instance, Bacon depicts spectral flesh, with bodies, and faces – animal, human, humanoid – becoming phantoms. Bacon’s works juxtaposed animal states, erotic spectacle, and exposed meat, within a context of modern alienation. For Bacon, modernity was a confinement that was part prison, part zoo, and part bathhouse, but also, crucially, part slaughterhouse. Flirting with a sort of godless (ir)religion, Bacon’s icon-influenced paintings fused soul with muscle, tendon, and carcass. But Bacon erred. Captured by the potentials of sculpture – of applying sculptural principles to paint, late Bacon assumed a plastic quality. Bodies became frozen, devoid of soul, and Bacon’s style ceased to move, ceased to counterbalance the animal with the existential, with Bacon unfairly accused of self-plagiarism. But Bacon’s work had become soulless for a different reason: he lost himself amid new terrain.

Meanwhile, Booth renders figures the colour and textures of their surrounds. One has a sense that the daemons that populate Booth’s works – those humanoid lunar-faced entities – are outward manifestations of the psyche in a fixed contortion, and thus not beings (or being) in transition, which is to say not moments in becoming, or transforming.

In contrast, Macleod’s passing, wandering, transient apparitions offer a more whimsical exploration of human interaction with nature. Macleod’s soulful works evoke the open shutter of the camera, gesturing to movement, and transience. They are paintings of motion blur, that emphasise in Macleod’s words, “the relationship between the figure and the landscape.” But his translucent figures also capture something of the folkloric, teetering toward a sort of painterly magic realism. His works capture the spark that darts into the night sky around a lit outdoor fire. There’s something illustrative about his work, but in the best sense. Indeed, Macleod has collaborated with Lloyd Jones on the book, Highwire, 2020.  

His paintings are illustrative partly because they evoke campsite stories, partly because they invoke the visual idioms of myth (sagas around landscape). But they are also illustrative because the works concern magical entities, and seem like moments in a larger story of journey-goers and travellers. Many of the paintings recall scenes, frozen still frames, from fantasy movies. And of course, New Zealand, associated with elemental, seasonal, and seismic extremes, has fittingly become the site of fantasy movies.

When I googled Summit Road, I found descriptions of “a narrow scenic road” in Canterbury, New Zealand, not far from Christchurch (although Australia also has its own Summit Roads). There are a number of paintings of “mum” walking alongside a mountainside road. But other paintings seem more overtly mythic, with images of burning boats, and giant shadow forms. This fixation on snow, wind, and fire draws on a continuum of magic symbolism – the sort we find in Tim Winton, Neil Gaiman, and David Lynch. And there are Lynchian moments of horror: especially with paintings of a burning boat. In one painting, Burning Boat in Lounge, 2022, we see an uncanny juxtaposition of a burning boat in doors, as a boy either peers out or bangs at the window. In Figures Moon and Burning Boat, 2022, it seems as though a giant leaves the scene of the crime. Similarly, an enigmatic confrontation with a giant occurs in Night Mountain Scene, 2022.

In short, we get the sense of mortals confronting mythic forces. There’s something Twin Peaks about New Zealand, after all . . . something mythical. (One need only ask Macleod’s compatriot, Jane Campion, who overtly borrows from Lynch.)

In a period of human induced climate change, there seems to be an increasing need for images that tell fables, images that capture the mythic. As noted by Richard Morecroft, Macleod’s paintings depict “humans who have become elements in a way.” It is in myth, that the strangeness of human encounters with landscape dwell, that the environment can be personified and animated. As such, Euan Macleod offers us enchanted encounters. 

Euan Macleod: Summit Road
9 May – 3 June, 2023 
King Street Gallery on William, Sydney

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