Thinking about the Art of Ian McKeever
By Donald Short –
Thirty-two years ago, while an undergraduate at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London, I worked intermittently for one of my tutors, Ian Mckeever, whose work up until that point had been obviously inspired by the landscape, in particular walks and expeditions he had taken in England and abroad, and one such painting now hangs in Preston’s Harris Museum.
Entitled Beside the Brambled Ditch, McKeever’s painting at first glance appears to be nothing more than a violent flurry of random black and white painted gestures, but on closer inspection one sees traces of a landscape photograph beneath. Is the photographic image a stimulus for the more dominant expressive response which ultimately erases it? Moreover, what is the point of this act of violent effacement? In the paintings from this period these questions are implicit, McKeever ostensibly resolving the argument in allowing more and more of the photographic stimulus to be revealed, a transition neatly demonstrated by the other of McKeever’s paintings in the Harris Collection. In Old Trees (1985), he gives the empirical second layer a conscious side parting and in doing so affords the eponymous trees in the photograph equal pictorial weight. This tendency would reach fruition in a series of extraordinary paintings based on a trip to Lapland the following year.
As with Old Trees, the first layer of the Lapland series comprised of large, part torn, black and white landscape photographs glued on to the support, so large in fact that the dark room stop bath was exactly that, a bath tub, and upon which McKeever then expressed himself with fervent gestural marks reminiscent of De Kooning, Joan Mitchell and blind-as-a-bat Monet. As with the earlier work, the violent stabs and daubs, swirling gestures and poured stains, sit clearly on the surface of the support beyond which one then sees the photographic image: a silhouetted tree; a cascading river; an ice field of rocks and snow. In doing so, McKeever posits two distinct forms of pictorial space uneasily next to each other or, moreover, one artlessly over the other like a child’s scrawl on an Old Master painting, while at the same time indulging in the simplest of mimetic responses: slashed and criss-crossed gestures echoing the form of tree trunks and tangled branches as in Hearing You Breathe 1; poured and thrown paint splashing and pooling like water, as in Crossing: the effect, painterly photographs.
Is the Lapland Series about the act of painting itself, abstraction versus representation? If so, it is an irony given a final twist: the shallow pictorial space established by the expressive daubs, stains and gestures have a way of organically congealing into frames or forming screens to the left or right of the photographic image, and in doing so McKeever indirectly borrows a traditional compositional device whereby screens (like theatrical flats) in the form of buildings, trees, crowds etc. allow the pictorial space to recede in anchored stages; an effect, that, in fact, amplifies the illusion of space.
To see what I mean, compare Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral From The Bishop’s Grounds (1825) with McKeever’s The Moth Tree and Night Fall, or more obliquely, an earlier painting, Night Light, where the painted gestures, which cross the support from top to bottom like titanic bolts of lightning, operate in a similar manner to the lances of the gathered Spanish army in Velasquez’ monumental, Surrender at Breda.
In his 1913 essay, Art and Significant Form the Edwardian critic Clive Bell took aim at the type of painting that makes up much of the rest of Preston’s Harris Museum, the sort easily associated with the soppy wall hangings of myriad Victorian parlours: farmyards and ducks, doctors and patients, piano lessons, boys and bubbles, etc. Bell believed that a painting in order to be a work of art had to transcend this type of direct representation, possessing what he calls ‘significant form’, and he picks his targets wisely attacking the superficiality and sentimentality of much English and French Academic painting of the previous half century, painting in which ‘form is not used as an object of emotion, but as a means of suggesting emotion.’
By the middle of the Nineteenth century, French and English art was in essence a vehicle for edification and entertainment, while in the art academies its formative mysteries were taught in rigorously defined stages that left little room for self-expression.
In France, with the advent of the second empire, there was some loosening of the rules, but popular taste, which seeks moral certainty above all else, was always going to be against innovation whether it had an official stamp of approval or not.
England, of course, had Turner, a brilliant, wayward painter in an otherwise docile community of academicians, and it is one such academician, William Powell Frith, and in particular his hugely popular The Railway Station, which Bell targets for particular criticism in his famous essay.
The Railway Station is, in fact, a technically superb evocation of three-dimensional space in which a cast of hundreds gather on the platform at Paddington Station playing out small narratives like actors on a stage. Yet Frith’s painting is not art, according to Bell, whose verbose and opaque essay meanders interminably toward a final loony climax with sentences such as, ‘Like the sun, she warms the good seed in good soil and causes it to bring forth good fruit. But only to the perfect lover does she give a new strange gift — a gift beyond all price’, sounding more like a fructive promotion on behalf of Sainsburys, than art criticism.
Frith, a minor Victorian painter, is an easy target, but what if we apply the same theory to some of the undisputed greats: Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens? Titian, who lived to an unusually old age, became more expressive in his use of paint as he grew older and in doing so the medium is more apparent, in some notable examples he even appears to have used his fingers to apply the pigment to the support.
There are numerous theories as to why this is, the most credible of which is that many of the late works (The Flaying of Marsyas is often held to be paradigmatic) are, in fact, unfinished. However, let us for a moment assume that Titian was making a conscious decision with regards the finish of his later paintings and compare two of his greatest works both in the National Gallery in London. The first is from the beginning of his career, the other from the end: Bacchus and Ariadne from 1520-23 and The Death of Actaeon, painted approximately forty years later.
In accordance with Bell’s theory, Bacchus and Ariadne, in its emphasis on a seamless finish and ‘suggested emotions’, is as much an illustration as Frith’s. Both paintings display crowds in which incidents of carefully formulated social interaction occur.
A man is apprehended by two police detectives in top hats. Silenus, a follower of Bacchus, at the point of falling of his donkey, is supported by an attending satyr. A soldier, recently alighted from the train, holds up his baby while his wife looks serenely on. A dog barks at a young satyr dragging a deer’s head in its wake.
The Death of Actaeon, in comparison, has a distinctly uneven finish in which the paint is obviously applied. Compare, for example, the carefully modulated, glazed treatment of Diana’s flesh and tunic to that of Actaeon’s or, moreover, the extraordinary bushel of leaves at Diana’s feet; a form which, first and foremost, before it is a simulacrum of vegetation, is an inky silhouette dramatically highlighted with thick, hastily applied strokes of thick golden paint. What a glorious square metre of paint it is; one, in fact, in which you will find the origin to every Constable sketch you will ever see.
In contrast, the foreground in the earlier of the two paintings is awash with meticulous botanical illustrations reminiscent of Holbein, Marianna North and Ruskin. Each blade of grass, petal and leaf is rendered in fastidious detail. Does the immediacy of the later painting, the oscillating tension between process and image, afford it significant form? Conversely is Bacchus and Ariadne, gloriously resplendent in its bold use of colour, dynamic asymmetry and sheer technical brilliance, any less of a painting because the creative process is hidden within the forms it represents?
Along with his friend Roger Fry, who organised two exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London in 1910, Bell was responsible for bringing to the attention of the British public artists such as Cezanne, and it is in the work of Cezanne that Bell identifies significant form in its highest sense.
Here, we have painting in which the application of the formal elements, by which I mean line, colour, tone, and shape result in what he calls ‘aesthetic emotions.’ Cezanne, of course, is best known for his landscapes around the town of Aix in the South of France, paintings which become increasingly more atomised and self-critical as he got older. What Bell is describing when referring to aesthetic emotions in Cezanne’s work is, in effect, the pleasure at seeing painting as a process opened up. To quote the critic Clement Greenberg, (using) ‘art to call attention to art’.
In his landmark essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg established a wider cultural context for this tendency: a paradigm shift had come about in France in the middle of nineteenth century as a result of enlightened scientific discovery and socio-political turmoil in combination with the disintegration of the ‘verities’ and signs that inevitably followed. The artist at the head of this insurgency was Edouard Manet who, in Greenberg’s words, painted ‘the first modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declare the flat surfaces on which they were painted.’
In Manet’s case, the conflicting dialogue between what is being represented and the means by which it is represented see-saws. Ascending, Manet convincingly martials his technical skills to represent an image, albeit with some infamous conflicting cultural and thematic signs; descending, he courts the possibilities of this formal process reading independently of the subject matter by virtue of the bravura of his technique.
This is a friction that, in fact, becomes much more obvious in the proceeding decades with the work of the so called Impressionists whose paintings would increasingly resemble a chromatic porridge of punctuation marks: commas, taches and dots.
By the final decade, Cezanne was inspired to the dredge this murky pond in order to find clear water again, to ‘make Impressionism something solid and durable like the Old Masters.’ What Cezanne felt had been lost in the thirty-year war against artistic convention, beginning first with artists such as Manet, was the idea of pictorial unity, and in seeking to reconcile this old-school trope with the optical and aesthetic effects of Impressionism, in Greenberg’s mind, he ‘changed the direction of painting in the very effort to return it by new paths to its old ways’, or, as Cezanne succinctly put it, ‘redo Poussin after nature.’
1987 was a year on from the Lapland series, and McKeever’s new paintings, which I was tasked with re-stretching, were ostensibly different: the frame had been restored to its tacit position at the edge of the support, the photographic image now almost entirely expunged. However, the works’ titles: Palimpsest, The Rock Mushroom, Trilobite and Pelee’s Hair, to name a few, suggested that beneath the layers of paint there was still a tangible romantic idea rooted in the landscape.
In 2019, the seriousness of Mckeever’s vehement, cogent industry appears redundant. Today painters appear to no longer set out to empirically solve problems of form. Instead painting has become a disinterested game of meretricious references. To quote the protean Gerhard Richter, an artist who has swung both ways for over half a century, the existential question ‘what shall I paint, how shall I paint’, which once denoted serious enquiry similar to McKeever’s own, now carries the weight of a bumper sticker epithet. Whether you agree with Clive Bell or, indeed, Clement Greenberg, like or dislike the paintings of Titian, Cezanne or Ian Mckeever, an age is upon us where, as a culture of relentlessly fixated image makers, we are in danger of producing nothing more significant than another Facebook photo of what we ate for lunch.