12th May - 4th June 2022
Heriot Gallery is pleased to announce Rory Macdonald's first solo show
You don’t often hear a painting described as fun. Perhaps this is because the word seems to diminish the work – or the person who produced it. Art is, after all, a serious and high-minded pursuit, and if the great art we see in museums and galleries is serious, then what we find fun cannot be good. Because of this artists and critics mostly eschew fun, and viewers leave the idea of finding it condoned in a gallery at the door.
One of the successes of Rory Macdonald’s painting is that it reminds us that this is misguided. His works show us that, far from being incompatible, fun and seriousness can be reconciled, and to great effect. This success is strengthened by – maybe even rests on – the fact that Macdonald works in a traditional way in a traditional medium: figurative oil painting.
In this respect he is unusual. For the most part, those who want to be light – David Shrigley, for example – depart entirely from traditional media. But Macdonald has not, and his work is all the stronger for it. He paints in a way that creates certain expectations, but the paintings themselves challenge those expectations; we see the medium and expect a certain message, but Macdonald’s creativity has intercepted it.
This gives the paintings an irreverence, but a respectful sort. The works have fun with the tradition, but only because their painter knows that tradition inside out. Macdonald’s process, for example, is much the same as that used by van Dyck (oils painted over underdrawings, in turn drawn over a coloured ground) and references to his painting are everywhere. And yet in George and the Dragon we see an oversized lobster behind a man whose confident gaze seems misplaced, as if he’s unaware of quite what he’s put his spear into – a lobster, not a lion. In Eau de Vie, a woman is in a glass. What is she doing there? In The Fall, a man seems calm to the point of stupidity about the fact that an entire scene is springing from his stomach. Maybe he doesn’t care; he just wants his face painted right.
You might not like such thoughts, but the fun of Macdonald’s art – and its intellectual achievement – is to bring them out of us. We’ve all been to a museum and seen the fun in an otherwise ‘serious’ painting: ‘what’s that cherub up to?’, ‘she looks a little off’, or ‘is he really reaching for that?’. In museums these thoughts tend to remain inside us, but in Macdonald’s paintings they are encouraged. The figures look at us and invite us to take them seriously. Sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t, but they confront us and our thoughts either way.
Ernst Gombrich once wrote that the visual arts have become ‘intolerably earnest’, and lamented the ‘false prestige [that] has come to be attached to the postulation of profound meanings or ulterior motives.’ There is no false prestige in Macdonald’s work. His skill is indisputable and his understanding of the tradition of oil painting is genuine. Taking both as tools he works to challenge our earnestness and pretences to profundity. His talent and the appeal of his painting lies in treading the line between fun and seriousness, and the result is a sublime levity. (with thanks to John Rattray)