Euan Macleod: Flux

In a new show of large atmospheric paintings, Euan Macleod attempts to capture the experience of climbing high up on New Zealand’s Haupapa / Tasman Glacier – Aoraki / Mt Cook. Not content to remain in the comfort of his Sydney studio, Macleod has always challenged his processes, and having the opportunity to paint large works for Orange Regional Gallery’s new contemporary spaces, he chose a project close to his heart.

Accompanied by artist and Orange’s director Brad Hammond, and photographer Craig Potton, he helicoptered onto the mountain ranges. It was his second trip with Potton and a guide, where they spent days documenting and climbing in the area.

Growing up in New Zealand, Macleod was attracted to the adrenaline rush of climbing from the age of fifteen. These new works reflect the inner adventurous spirit that has been a mainstay of the artist’s life and art.

In Macleod’s paintings, the mountain figure walks through impossible conditions. The figure climbs or attains high ground morally, physically, and spiritually. It’s an enduring motif of the artist’s work. I know no other artist who works as hard as Macleod. He thrives on challenges—to artistically push his practice. Not all artists could keep pace with what may seem a confusingly busy studio practice. Like a mountaineer, the artist enjoys strategically plotting the best painterly route forward, but likes to stress he has no idea of the outcome.

Sources are intensely felt—using memories and plein air studies to work up images on a grand scale. Macleod adopts a free-spirited approach, looking for new ways of invention between figure and ground. There’s an analogy between his exploration of new painting processes and the wild landscapes he’s trying to capture.

“I love that analogy with the place,” he says, “because you do have this wild untamed area where you can test yourself, but there is also danger ever present around you. I’m trying to get something special from the finished painting outdoors.”

Flux is a personal journey for Macleod. It’s not a survey but an exploration. The mountain becomes a metaphor, a place that is unsafe. Through paint the artist faces mortality, anxieties, exploring personal confrontations and discoveries. He mentions an early fear of heights and how mountaineering became a test of nerve. He recalls being quite terrified the first time he went up, and the feeling of achievement at the top of a mountain—sometimes the equivalent of the painting experience.

Open space abounds in the bigger works in this show. There’s a confidence in leaving large areas free, and a sublime feel for negative space. The surface of the smaller acrylic studies are more densely covered or saturated, a different type of approach.

“It’s really tested me,” Macleod states. “It’s a lovely idea to think that you will get the same freshness by blowing up a work on paper on a large scale, but it doesn’t work like that . . . a mark that would work well on paper looks contrived and out of place on a large canvas. I’ve had to come up with a new way of working that attempts to find that freshness, but I haven’t found it easy at all. Sometimes the resolution starts getting overworked, the paint starts building up and you can lose the vitality. You find yourself making small marks and alterations which can help the painting but it can also shut down that flow.”

Figures become symbols in these works. Perhaps they are the returning physical phantoms of his youth—weird encounters from past trips. The artist mentions a spooky continuum of synchronicity between this expedition and his earlier trips. Maybe that’s why spectral figures inhabit these particular landscapes—shadows of the artist himself and his past. In the almost five-metre-wide Highwire (ONZ), he stages a dramatic tightrope walker. Precariously balancing across the open atmospheric spaces, we fear for the central figure. It’s a daringly loose picture, experiential almost, but it reminds us of what good paintings can do.

What’s apparent is the artist, in this suite of works, is happy to have them not “museum- ready,” but a little more raw and gestural. It’s about having a faith in the process. He plays fast and loose with the paintings, which have a beautifully subdued, watery, atmospheric feel. One can sense the initial artistic grabs at the uncomfortable conditions, the freezing cold.

Macleod says, “This has given me an opportunity to focus on doing things in a different way. I didn’t want to be constrained by having to come up with really finished works. I wanted to come up with an openness in them. I really wanted to keep a freshness that I can get in works on paper—my acrylics, the immediacy, and initial responses into those really big canvases.”

When asked what he learnt about himself on this adventure, he’s part practical, part philosophical. “I learnt that I was unfit! You can’t do at sixty-six what you could do at twenty-one!” he says with a laugh. But it wasn’t all about the physical changes he noticed this time around. “There was something about climbing and the way I finished it in my youth that was unresolved. I finished in a way like just giving up. Later on, as I got older, I realised just how much I loved that area, and for me this show is almost like unfinished business.”

This article was originally published in issue 66, Artist Profile 

Euan Macleod: Flux
22 March – 2 June 2024 
Orange Regional Gallery, NSW 

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