Iain Maclean - artist and writer
I’m a Scottish, Polish/Swedish mongrel, born in Zambia (on the Congo border) and Zimbabwe. The names of both the town and country of my birth no longer exist.
In terms of art, my earliest direct influences were African in the form of wood and soapstone carvings and stick-figure paintings for the tourist trade.
When I was about eight, one of my teachers gave me an illustrated book on European art. It became a cherished possession – my escape into other worlds. I didn’t visit a gallery until I was in my late teens.
I was particularly attracted to the work of Picasso and Francis Bacon. I didn’t know why at the time, but perhaps it was because they both distorted the human form, a little like African art.
In '69 I came to London and got a place at Goldsmiths. As a colonial, I didn't get a grant, so paid my way through by working as a showman (backstage) at the London Palladium.
Like many students in the early 70s at Goldsmiths, I moved away from figurative, to more conceptual work. I started designing a series of “rooms” exploring the senses: smell, touch, sight and audio.
I eventually grew disenchanted with working nights, including weekends and studying in the day, so gave it all up and went into advertising. I'm not sure I believed Marshal Mcluhan when he said that, “Advertising is the art of the 20th Century” , but I gave it a go. I had one exhibition at JWT in Berkeley Square and sold a few pieces. However, I threw the rest off New Cross Bridge on my last visit to Goldsmiths.
I became a copywriter and after a while creative director at a number of advertising agencies in London, including Ogilvy; Dewar, Coyle Maclean; Leybourne Brown Maclean and Enfatico Y&R. I won a few gongs and, in 2006, went back to art school, this time, Byam Shaw, Central St Martins.
In 2010, I gave up advertising and took up art more or less full-time.
That's the past, what about now? Who knows? It keeps evolving, changing. It's taken me a long, long time and much painful self-interrogation. I've been forced to be brutally honest with myself. Am I any good? Who knows? Do I have anything unique and interesting to say? Yes, I think so.
Having been a professional writer, albeit for advertising for decades, I find it fascinating that that art helps me express deep and complex feelings and experiences. As Georgia O’Keefe said, ““I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for.”
For me, art has always been sacrosant; above money, above decoration, above beauty, above mild amusement, above mere cleverness and superficialities.
I wondered why. And then it came to me. When I was 13 and living in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, I got lost once and discovered some prehistoric cave paintings in a mysterious place called the Matopos, an area famous for its leopards, snakes, balancing rocks and the burial ground of King Mzilikazi and Lobengula the great Ndebele rulers.
I've written about the episode separately, so I won't bore you here with the details. Suffice it to say, that I was deeply affected by the experience. Unfortunately, I never found the cave again.
Why did they bother going to all the trouble of finding and crushing and mixing pigments, making utensils, then, using valuable materials such as tallow or firewood, spend countless hours painting figures on the walls of cold, dangerous and inaccessible caves, knowing that few would ever see them?
It’s likely they believed that if you captured the image of an animal, or person, you also captured their soul; you had power over them.
This is no fanciful notion. Many Native American tribes were reluctant to have their photographs taken because believed that if you took their photo, you captured their soul. This belief was common in many parts of Africa and even, ironically, Japan, as reported by pioneering Japanese photographer, Ueno Hikoma in the 19th Century.
Art was originally associated with magic. It had sacred purpose.
Unlike an amulet, which is an object with inherent natural magical properties, a talisman has to be specially worked by hand, to be charged with magical powers. Amulets weren’t specially made and were used more generically for good luck, or to combat evil.
Art and the talisman were inextricably intertwined with the lives of ordinary people and had a deep and powerful purpose: magic. Animals painted on caves such as El Castillo in Spain (40,800 years old) and the Chauvet in France (at least 37,000 years old) were also probably talismanic.
This experience moulded my view of art. For me, art isn’t mimetic, decorative, superficial, inconsequential, instead, it has a deeper, more meaningful purpose. It is almost magical, and I don’t mean mumbo jumbo, or idolatrous.
I’m not interested in art as: mimesis, abstractions, fripperies, decoration, cleverness, colour, form, or masquerading as dull and inept theatre, film prose/poetry, pseudo-science, or pseudo-philosophy.
I’m not interested in craft per se, I’m interested in people; their thoughts; emotions, experiences and views of the world.
Surprisingly, of all people, Mark Rothko said, “I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”
Personally, I'm not a fan, because his work expresses and evokes for me, nothing beyond flat, tedious areas of dull colour.
Maybe his admirers are sincerely super-sensitive, or perhpas they've been talked into believing that they can see see things that aren't there. I call them the Illusionists.
They put me in in mind of Polonius.
“HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS: By th’ mass and ’tis—like a camel indeed.
HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET: Or like a whale.
POLONIUS: Very like a whale.”
I believe that art should go far beyond craft and set skills.
Jerry Saltz wrote, "I don’t look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy and something visionary. Skill only means technical proficiency…”
I too, am not interested in craft per se. The recurrent vogue for hyperrealism leaves me cold. Why bother do a painting that looks like a photograph and which, in most cases, was based on one? Just take a bloody happy snap. If it was a photograph we probably wouldn’t notice it.
Yes, of course it takes skill, but so what? Art has to go beyond mere mimesis.
However, craft is important for artists who want the liberation of expressing themselves with a reasonable degree of confidence.
If you’ve ever been to the Van Gogh museum, you can see the importance of craft. Through his work, you can see him gaining confidence in and mastery of his craft over the years. It’s like watching a butterfly emerging.
As he gained confidence, he explored more interesting and difficult areas, such as night paintings.
St Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
In terms of the art world today, I would modify that as follows: He who works with his hands is a craftsman. He who works with his head only is a curator. He who works with hands, his head and his heart, is an artist.
I am an artist, here is my work.
I know that I should stick to one style and theme. It would be much easier to market my work. However, I didn’t escape from advertising to end up being a brand.
Perhaps I’m what, according to professor Galenson, a “conceptual innovator”, rather than an “experimental innovator”.
In general, conceptual innovators make sudden and radically different changes of direction and even style in their work. He quotes the example of Picasso as being typical.
By contrast, experimental innovators work by trial and error and concentrate on particular themes and styles. Examples are Monet and Cezanne, who painted the same view many times.
As you'll see, I have no fixed style, but, instead am fixated on a number of subject areas, such as: war and slavery, exploring the sense of smell and two equally unfashionable areas: passion and the search for meaning and god.
Ah well, it's just as well I'm not in it for the money, or fame.
Take a look...
Copyright iain Maclean 2019. All rights reserved
The Passion Exhibition, 2010 Islington, London.