A couple of days ago I dropped by Kilmorack Gallery in Beauly to catch the Allan MacDonald exhibition there. It was a day of rare and unexpected contrasts. Heavy rain had flooded roads, making some near impassable on the way down from the north coast, the sun shone brightly, though, while nearing Inverness the cloud wrack that hung over Invergorden gave some hint of what treats MacDonald can deliver when painting at the top of his game. The well-hung clouds that skudded across Cromarty Firth and the Black Isle were spectacular, threatening, joyous and beguiling in equal measure. What they lacked, however, was that characteristic light that MacDonald is so adept at capturing and speaks of a certain time of day, a certain season, a certain place, and a moment that can pass in an instant.
Arriving in Beauly from the North, just past the bend where the A836 crosses Black Burn and the road slows to what are currently temporary roadworks on the approach to the village, a ram was fielded with a half dozen ewes, but my thoughts were already occupied by what lay ahead at Kilmorack and the heavy skies that I had passed under on route, too. One might say that my thoughts were coloured by the bigness of everything around me, I guess.
I certainly don’t think that I can claim for the aforementioned ram that he was unusually endowed, but the fulsomeness of nature does sometimes focus the mind somewhat. Did this particular ram have the largest testicles I have ever seen? Swinging like a heaving bag of groceries, the business end of the creature had me questioning how he could actually stay upright, and as a consequence I nearly missed my turn as the temporary lights switched to green and the cars ahead of me pulled away.
Sometimes nature is like that. You find yourself just looking on in amazement, stilled by the bigness of it all. Amazement is a feeling not dissimilar to disbelief, of course. Is it really as we see it, or is our view informed by the sheer strangeness of what, on another day, would seem commonplace or familiar? – Foot to floor, I got through the light just in time and focused again on my destination.
Like gargantuan ram’s bollocks, paintings such as Allan MacDonald’s yellow blue red, (2019) similarly has one looking on in amazement. Is this a fiction before my eyes, or a conceit devised to maximise what may have been a far more modest vista? You have to see the real thing that looms threateningly from above, rising over the horizon, to know in your heart that it is in every way true – there is no exaggeration on the part of the artist… this was it, that moment when one’s smallness in the grander scheme of one’s wider surroundings is emphasised with a fleeting moment or recognition. Like the big wave seen coming from the smallest of vessels in a vast sea, there is an “oh shit” moment, before the wave hits.
Unlike being out there in the midst of it all, however, the “oh shit” moment in a painting such as yellow blue red (2019) naturally evolves over time – during the making of the work, that is. To stay true to the moment of wonder that gave rise to the work takes considerable skill and courage on the part of the artist. He is not so much battling the elements but battling the risk of losing the essence of that which is his objective; a true representation of what one sees if one is prepared to look out at the vastness of it all, and – more importantly – can bare to look. Clearly an adept painter of sea and landscapes, MacDonald slips it to us with what may seem like apparent ease, but it doesn’t take long to understand how hard-won works such as yellow blue red really are.
In his current exhibition, ending soon on 21 September 2019, there are not just large works but some much smaller, and equally powerful, too. An example that serves as an indication of many in the show would have to be Ben Wyvis, (2019) which measures just 20 x 25 cm, yet here is no ‘small’ work either. In spite of its diminutive size compared to the 122 x 152 cm dimensions of yellow blue red, Ben Wyvis has all the weight and gravitas of the larger work discussed. It also affirms what a great colourist MacDonald really is, and in Ben Wyvis he seems to have captured the very skies under which I had passed on route to his exhibition, or as near as damn it!
Coastal paintings such as raging, Mangersta 2, (2019), and imminent, (2019), further confirm the range of MacDonald’s skill in this regard, but to overlook his far more simple (yet no doubt equally hard-won) works, including homage, Belladrum, (2019) or oak shadow, (2019) is a grave mistake when viewing the body of work on show as a whole, and the addition of a portrait of the artist’s mother (titled consider the daffodils, 2019), just nails the extent to which MacDonald has control over his chosen medium of oil on canvas. Indeed, if you wanted a masterclass in all that oil on canvas can be made to do, you have it right here in one single exhibition.
Having never met the artist nor spoken or corresponded with him about his art – something that I would very much like to rectify, and should – I really don’t know how much he grapples with his medium in a fight to the finish, but I am thinking that it is indeed a battle with the elements from beginning to end, from the point of departure to the putting down of a brush and the leaning of these works against the studio wall. Though all dated 2019, neither do I know how long they take to make, and again I’d like to understand this.
On the strength of what I’ve seen at the Kilmorack Gallery currently, knowing more about the process has now become my objective. I want to know about the making of these works and will no doubt write again about the process should I be able to articulate it. In the meantime, I urge those in search of big nature, sublime painting, and a masterful awareness of the subtle nuances of colour as it exists out there on the coastal margins, the landscape of Scotland’s interior, and above all the skies above, to make the time to view MacDonald’s exhibition while you can. Here is an exhibition that is in every way ‘the ram’s bollocks’, and you will do yourself a disservice if you do not give it your imminent attention.
Until 21 September 2019