Recent Paintings: David MacWilliam
October 27 - December 27, 1990
Vancouver Art Gallery
Catalogue Essay, Ian Thom
David MacWilliam's recent paintings, characterized by a concern for subtle modulations in form and richly varied painted surfaces, recall his early work as a sculptor. This concern for interdependent form and colour has remained a constant in MacWilliam's work. The other constant in his work has been an interest in technique and process.
MacWilliam is, in many senses, a traditional painter. Final paintings are the result of a series of studies. Usually beginning with small drawings, MacWilliam refines the contours of his images and only then adds colour. There may be a small scale painting and a larger image to refine the idea. The differences between the two painted images may be small or involve shifts in colour, scale and relationships (particularly of the image to the shape of the support).
Until recently MacWilliam has based his images upon his own drawing studies. During the past year he has turned his attention to earlier art. The sources for these paintings are renaissance and baroque paintings and more specifically drapery within these paintings. MacWilliam has isolated small details of cloth folds and used them as the starting point for drawings.
By isolating and eveloping the details of drapery MacWilliam has succeeded in creating images which retain suggestions of their sources while functioning as independent aesthetic statements.
The ambiguity of representing the third dimension on a two-dimensional surface has long been an interest of MacWilliam (and most twentiesth painters). This is evident in the paintings Louver and Sleeve.
The space relationships suggested by the upper portion of Louver (the green section being in front of the orange) are contradicted by the middle and lower sections (which suggest that the orange element is on the same plane or before the green). Similarly the flatness of the smaller element in Sleeve contradicts the suggestion of volume in the larger. MacWilliam has achieved these readings by manipulation of line and shadow - traditional tools of the painter. The tension which these manipulations introduce into the images gives them, however, an "edge" which is quite foreign to earlier painting.
The apprehension of form is of ongoing concern to MacWilliam but he is equally interested in challenging our assumptions about form. At first glance his paintings seem largely about colour but drawing remains central to their evolution. This is apparent when one considers the oil on card studies which preceded many of them. These works, which largely eschew colour, deal with form and, perhaps paradoxically, suggest how form can be denied. The introduction of colour to the bare matrix of Sheath results in a flattened image. The lower section has no volume and is apparently identical to the canvas surface. The upper section, the shadowed "opening" and folds in the "drapery" emerge from the surface to suggest a third dimension. This movement into space is, however, held in check by the flat "sky" blue.
The recent paintings include works which are highly abstracted from the source and others such as Corolla which can be read as drapery. MacWilliam has used colour but principally light and texture to achieve these variations. Where in Hermes (Little Wing) the flow of light across the image seems arbitrary, unnatural and denies texture, in Corolla the consistent lighting strongly suggests shiny, slightly still, fabric.
The most recent painting deliberately confuses the issue. The lower section of Escarpment, which is consistently lit and suggests topography, is denied by the flat element at hte right of hte image which is in the same plane as the sky.
Although colour comes after the initial drawing it is far from an afterthought. MacWilliam is acutely aware of both the emotive and aesthetic role of colour in his images. His paintings are layered with colour which is built up from a base of acrylic gesso. Colour is used to define form and relationships of form, a role which line plays in the studies, and to invest the images with some of the ambiguity which continues to interest MacWilliam.
The paintings have an evocative sense of mystery about them and MacWilliam often chooses to control or emphasize this in his titles. Scarf for example, suggests a fluidity contradicted by the apparent solodity of the earth coloured forms. Hubris suggests that the form is indeed rising but is doomed to fall and rejoin the mass from which it emerged. A new narrative sense is thus superimposed onto images abstracted and developed from their original narrative context.
MacWilliam is engaged in painting which while related to earlier art is strongly contemporary. Within a vocabulary of abstraction these works explore issues related to figuration and complex, alternative narrative. While emerging from the concerns of his earlier art, the new paintings lay claim to an expanded aesthetic and intellectual realm.
Ian M. Thom