November 14 - January 31, 1999
Vancouver Art Gallery
Catalogue Essay, Lucy Hogg
Go Play Outside
The Rock Face loomed as we slowed down just a little on our way through Squamish, in an attempt to spot the insignificant bits of coloured humanity clinging to its steepness. The "Chief" is a popular recreational siet, a short commute for the Vancouver urban dweller's respite from the regimented stress of the nine-to-five world. Hardly the armchair for the weary businessman.
It's late Saturday morning and the sports equipment co-op is full of shoppers planning the ergonomic details of their next outdoor experience. Spanning up over their heads is a large abstract relief, its sensual undulations suggesting the body. On its earth-coloured ground are subtly coloured plastic organ like attachments spaced at an arm or leg span from each other, implying articulated movement upward. It is a vertical landscape of monumental proportions, conjuring up a domesticated interior version of the old romantic ratio of man diminished by nature, yet called to conquer.
If we trace any consistency in the artwork of David MacWilliam we might find a certain kind of sheepishness manifesting itself as an obfuscation of style. Here style is hte eradication of style, at least in the larger sense of gesture or motif. Earlier work, with its overt figure and ground relationships, flirted with the heroic, awkwardly, in a way a lot of painting of the early 80s was awkward, recognizing as it did after two decades of minimalism and conceptualism a certain redundancy of a "debased and irrelevant tradition." Unlike the more contemporary mediums of print, photography and video, painting apparently didn't participate in the languages needed to respond to history, politics and strategy that the critical avant-garde had been demanding.
MacWilliam's later 80s work reflected his growing knowledge of the craft of oil painting, and style began to insinuate itself into the work; this being the imperative of habit, or maybe a moderist response to the spectre of an imaginary market. The motifs, derived from historical examples of painted drapery, linked us reassuringly from painting to painting with a certain logic echoing the narrative found in any monograph chronicling your average 20th century artist's course of development.
By 1993, a crisis point was reached, and old studio procedures and conventions were rejected. Canvases and supports became unpredictable in format and material, and seriality broke down. MacWilliam's paintings became contingent upon each other, simpler fragments needing to be grouped to form compound structures. Style could only be pegged as an attitude., willful whimsy or as random trajectory. No longer did the paintings refer to the traditions of fine art, but more to the industrial techniques of the manufactured surface (sanded, polished, rubbed, ground), unmediated by the gesture of the hand, Formats transformed found shapes of the everyday, templates vaguely referring to some previous, practical use.
He was listening to himself for a change, doing whatever he felt like, because who cared?
David MacWilliam's recent rock climbing paintings acknowledge not so much a particular interest in rock climbing, but reflectively act localized aspects of contemporary west coast leisure culture. The aesthetisization of interactive gymnasium structures (which can be found in venues with names like Vertical Addiction, Cliffhanger and Rockhouse) immobilizes them, offering up a melancholic rumination on the inertness of formalist concerns (here read a critique of modernist painting), analogous to the domestication of raw nature as it is colonized by technology. The colours of the shaped figures and their contrasting grounds have been derived from brochures for interior design, offering us received ideas of what constitutes good taste, furthering the domestic analogy and reassuring us that we could still be shopping, affirming our lifestyle choices, whilst grappling in a fundamental way with the laws of gravity.
The paintings suggest that a potential art audience (and market) lies tantalizingly out of reach of the purview of the Vancouver art community, instead replaced by the highly visible recreational culture dominating our city where obvious capital investment (memberships at the yacht club and timeshares at Whistler) could otherwise find its way to cultural institutions, educational programs, and fine art collections. Here, where the majority of all paintings bought are conventional landscapes, MacWilliam's works offer a nature as it is produced and consumed by its audience, no longer the sublime viewed untouched through the pictorial window, but a concrete commodity. However, the genres are mixed. The figure is evoked by the proportions of the paintings, derived from the standard 4' x 8' format of plywood, recalling a human span of reach. Within the implied architecture of building materials the climbing holds in their molded colours ask the body to move on up. We swing diagonally upwards, engaged and vertically challenged into a primary co-ordination of hands and feet. We are the figures in the found, virtually called to consider where we are moving to or from, within the life-size theatre of action and consumption. Nature is culture as we tentatively reach for the next foothold, and success or failure in that relation will not necessarily depend on ascent.