Euan Macleod | Boneyard

A rocky outcrop overhanging the perilous climb to their trenches came to symbolise the tribulations of the Anzacs at Gallipoli: its shape is reminiscent of the Sphinx in Egypt, and they named it after that enigmatic sculpture. Euan Macleod’s ‘Sphinx’, part of an upcoming new solo exhibition of 27 paintings, Boneyard, for Niagara Galleries, Melbourne in April, is one of the most profoundly complex and confronting works for our time.

Brushed in oils, the dynamic and imposing painting depicts a group of Turkish women and two men wandering past the outcrop. The women are mostly wearing black hijabs while the leading men are wearing white long-sleeved shirts and trousers. They walk in a linear formation; the railings pose a barrier to an approach and a fall, perhaps to the return of the dead.

The picture captures a moment, like a photograph, where the figures appear to merge into the creeping black-painted shadow on the ominous outcrop. At the top right of the painting is a calm open space where Macleod’s Aegean Sea, in aqua blue, saturated with lighter yellowy-greens and white sandy tones, delineates the distant foreshore. To the left and rising from the bottom of the painting is a roasting-fleshy colour, illustrating light on the Sphinx. One doesn’t quite know if the dark muddy figures are looming with the shadowy Sphinx outcrop over the land or if it is entrapping the figures.

His exhibition is titled Boneyard, after a painting in the exhibition by the artist. The title evokes a favourite ocean spot near Kaikoura, New Zealand, where Macleod grew up before arriving in Sydney in 1981. It also describes for him the sensation of his Gallipoli experience, which he explains, “Is literally a graveyard … the sense of walking on the dead”.

Bill Nuttall of Niagara Gallery made the selection of 27 paintings in Boneyard. Together they deepen our appreciation of Macleod’s familiar themes: his expressionist and symbolist attention to universal dichotomies such as life and death, driven by his emotions. Nuttall has chosen images of erupting volcanoes, waterfalls, trenches, tombstones, dinghies and tourists. The thematic uniformity is unexpected since they were not all painted from the Gallipoli experience. Six were painted with his New Zealand experience in mind.

Euan Macleod has described ‘Sphinx’ and his other Gallipoli paintings as having developed in six separate periods. Gallipoli was a particular place of interest for him for longer than he can remember, even before he entered and won the Gallipoli Prize in 2009, with his painting ‘Smoke, pink landscape/shovel’. His trip to Gallipoli in 2013 with other Australian artists was brief, but his second trip in 2014 gave him eight days on the site, which he shared with 10 artists and three writers from Australia. He then spent 12 months developing the paintings in his Sydney studio, until the ‘Sphinx’ painting’s planned final presentation.

Painting the male naked body is a great passion of Macleod’s. Nearly all of the Boneyard paintings have naked male forms. One has a clothed male facing a tunnel, and three, including ‘Sphinx’, women wearing black hijabs. Their concealment of femininity reveals a paradox in diverse cultures: the right for citizens to wear what they want even at the expense of universal equality.

Together the 27 paintings in Euan Macleod’s new exhibition, Boneyard, deepen our appreciation of Macleod’s familiar themes: his expressionist and symbolist attention to universal dichotomies such as life and death, driven by his emotions.

Macleod wants us to experience the changing cultural shifts in Turkey from the time of the battle for Gallipoli 100 years ago. Perhaps too much can be read into the fact that a male is positioned as leading the group of women in ‘Sphinx’. Recently, the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan removed all restrictions on the wearing of the hijab: it had been officially discouraged by the ultra-secularist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey, in 1923. Macleod’s women in ‘Sphinx’ are presented as negative forms to imply the radical agendas of all visitors to Gallipoli. He points out, “Even though they were Turks, they were visiting there … they were coming in the same way as we were going … they’re there for the same purpose, to try and make some sense out of this bloody senseless piece of stupidness that went on there.”

The artist’s need to express his emotions through his painting means that processes tend to be in short, energetic bursts, often with intense music playing, then these are followed by long periods of reflection. Having had the benefit of thinking about the initial Gallipoli experience for a year he poured hours into reading personal accounts in soldiers’ letters. He produced a mass of preparatory paintings, sketches and photos that were focused on a precise representation of the area. Only as the paintings took shape did figures, bones and shovels appear. Macleod leaves a lot of room for faith, pointing out “that something would come up, and that something would happen”. This method explains some of the spatial ambiguity in Boneyard and indeed in all his work.

If Macleod’s paintings were only about place, then one would not be able to comprehend their emphatic impact. When visitors view ‘Sphinx’ in the Boneyard exhibition, they will undoubtedly experience what it means to be human in either an open or closed world.

Euan Macleod: Boneyard
5-30 April 2016
Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Euan Macleod is represented by Niagara Galleries, Melbourne and Watters Gallery, Sydney.

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