The idea of art as an expressive tool is at the heart of Northland artist Scott McFarlane’s oeuvre. Whether communicated consciously or sub-consciously, McFarlane’s work provides the viewer with a glimpse into the external influences, environmental cues, and moments of piqued interest, all infiltrating his artistic practice with humour, beauty and pathos. Indeed, the everyday forms the basis of McFarlane’s paintings of lush, green landscapes, graphic illustrated ceramic tiles or abstract, surreal-like dreamscapes. This influence is manifest across the different media and McFarlane exploits the intricacies and characteristics of each for full effect, evidenced by adept technical skills and historical knowledge.
'Art is a human activity consisting in this: that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through...'
- Leo Tolstoy
In his 1934 treatise Art as Expression theorist John Dewey advocated a continuity between everyday experience and art. He wrote that the act of expression which produces a work of art conflates an artist's past experiences and emotion with present action, thus fully embodying what Dewey described as the cumulative meaning and rhythm of an 'aesthetic experience'. In Dewey's theory, expression was not 'unthinking discharge' but it involved a desire to communicate using an external medium such as painting.
The idea of art as an expressive tool, as Dewey espoused, is at the heart of Northland artist Scott McFarlane's oeuvre. Whether communicated consciously or sub-consciously, McFarlane's work provides the viewer with a glimpse into the external influences, environmental cues, and moments of piqued interest, all infiltrating his artistic practice with humour, beauty and pathos. Indeed, the everyday forms the basis of McFarlane's paintings of lush, green landscapes, graphic illustrated ceramic tiles or abstract, surreal-like dreamscapes as portrayed in this exhibition. This influence is manifest across the different media and McFarlane exploits the intricacies and characteristics of each for full effect, evidenced by adept technical skills and historical knowledge.
It would be an oversimplification to say expression was the only function of McFarlane's art, however it nevertheless provides a fitting aesthetic framework particularly in relation to the artwork in False Idols. The exhibition draws together artworks completed by McFarlane in the last year and is dominated by hazy dreamscapes inhabited by figures who seem to float in and out of focus - perhaps even in and out of consciousness - and are suggestive of the exhibition's title. McFarlane's nuanced use of an earthy palette - brown, ochre, green, Siena red, blue - recalls crumbling fresco walls, fifteenth-century religious paintings, Cubism and Pieter Breughel and is butted up against unusually high horizon lines, a flattened sense of space, emphasis on all-over surface patterning and fluid, abstract form. The push and pull of modern versus traditional, the now and seen versus the abstract and emotional, is a common theme throughout the work. The Reading (2013) is typical of McFarlane, expressive in both style and content. Form dominates the composition in this work, a wreath of interconnected shapes suggesting depth while darker objects in the background skew a traditional ideal of aerial perspective. Formalised landscape gives way to a patchwork of green and brown with a blue strip - perhaps sky - stretching across the top of the canvas. Neither places nor faces are specific or localised and we instead are invited to read logicality or abstraction in the collaging of geometry and colour.
A visual and aural magpie, McFarlane litters his work with references to history, art history, politics and poetry. Headlines in the newspaper, conversations with friends, and radio interviews also make their way into McFarlane's artwork. These moments of piqued interest manifest as expressive marks, everyday experiences invading the art experience Dewey advocated. As such, titles become a significant entry-point to many of McFarlane's paintings, acting as reference guides or signposts to both the form and external realities. In French Perfume and Gin we can make out a man in a beret and a Pierrot face in the corner, a reference to a radio announcement at the time of painting; in The Dictator Adolf Hitler's severe brow and perennial frown seem to appear, disembodied, in the centre of the painting. In Last Horse on the Sand, the title of a song by Dirty Three, McFarlane presents a visual manifestation of an aural experience. The circular, jazz-like melodies on the Australian instrumental rock trio's 1997 recording are given form in McFarlane's painting through the use of colour blocks jig-sawed together and clusters of figures distributed at random across the board, like stickers in a child's book. Incessant movement is emphasised by the broken composition, tension between light and dark, and the disparity between focused and smudgy painting. This all serves to propel the eye around the painting in an endless game of round-robin rather like the throwing of a jazz solo amongst musicians.
The initial marks of many of the works in False Idols were created en plein air, generally during a three or four hour period in which the overall composition and subject matter took form. After several hours the medium becomes too tacky to work with outdoors and McFarlane would relocate to the studio at this point, wherein he would often spend up to eight months refining the works by tightening the composition and intensifying colour to a soundtrack of recorded music and spoken word. It is common for McFarlane to work on a number of artworks at any one time, and from three or four sides of the canvas or board, continuously turning it around until the 'right way up' becomes obvious.
McFarlane relocated to Kerikeri in the early 1990s and became interested in the history of the area, devouring books on the New Zealand Wars, Nga Puhi history, and early colonial settlement in Northland. Painting the scenery of the area, which became for McFarlane the subject of a self-confessed 'obsession', was a meaningful embodiment of this emotion expressed in an alternative medium. It also enabled the artist to familiarise himself with his new surroundings and the resultant topographical studies were popular with both the public and art critics.
For McFarlane however, the landscapes failed to fully resolve the aesthetic conversation between his workbooks and the finished art objects. In an effort to bridge this gap McFarlane began producing handmade ceramic tiles which he decorated with bits of conversation, faces and graphics from advertising. The tiles were varied in size and employed a highly-graphic, flattened, illustrative style using a stark palette of red, white and black with a high gloss finish. Hung in their hundreds, the tile installations highlighted the absurdities of humanity and the farcical nature of life and formed a significant part of McFarlane's exhibiting history for much of the 1990s. Although they remain a significant part of his artistic output, McFarlane's return to exhibiting paintings has forced him to work again with this medium and to experiment with its own particularities outside of the framework of baked terracotta. Surface texture certainly appears to be an element McFarlane relishes, producing gritty impasto works on hardboard and loosely woven linen which convey a sense of earthy-rawness. So too colour and composition are significant points of difference in these more abstract works. Edible Geography for instance is delineated primarily through colour blocking - soft pink, green and taupe - which lie together like countries on a map. Figures and shapes resembling bits of broken sculpture are painted on top of the colour blocks like markers of capitals, tourist attractions or highest buildings. A panel of weeping willows, strikingly autumnal beside the pastel colouration of the work, acts as a visual bookend at the top.
The painting, False Idols has a grungy-feel due in part to the unforgiving board used as a surface. McFarlane allows the texture of his medium to come through the paint, going so far as to reinforce the striations of canvas by wiping paint off the surface with a rag. The board used also gives the impression of a rock face or stone wall, and the winged and floating creatures set against the dawn-coloured backdrop appear like celestial beings which were popular in fifteenth-century fresco painting. Nature and Fantasy recalls Toss Wollaston's landscapes and Georges Braque's cubist paintings of the early twentieth-century. Here however, the figurative has been completely distilled to form a semi-circular cloud of colour across the upper section of the work. Form is created layer upon layer, forming shapes within shapes and highlighted by rich vermilion and gold tones which evoke Dutch seventeenth-century still lifes.
Navigate by the Star, Woman with Red Hair is a Handful of Dust and The Rooms of the Magnificentare less gritty but retain historical connections by invoking Brueghel and by adopting Biblical themes. Navigate by the Star could relate to the wise men of the nativity story, guided to the infant Jesus by a star. It could also be a reference to the inherent migratory capability of birds such as eagles and albatrosses, whose profiles feature in two small vignettes, invoking Lyttleton artist W. D. Hammond's bird profiles in many of his works. This is a densely populated work, punctuated by sections of block background colour peeking through the collage of shapes on top. Row-like layering of form characterises Woman with Red Hair and there is an intensity of busy-ness resident in the shapes on the canvas, akin to Brueghel's market scenes. However, unlike Brueghel's figures, McFarlane's have become blurred in their economy, their features at times only faintly discernible through heavy brushstrokes. Indeed faces are only ever hinted at and seem to fade in and out of focus like images appearing on photographic paper; ghostly appearances attempting to struggle their way to the visual surface. A nun with swathed head, a naked woman, a couple kissing, a crescent moon - these can all be detected amidst the surface pattern of McFarlane's works, yet as soon as they appear the eye plays a trick on you to suggest they are taking the form of something entirely different.
In allowing a certain amount of visual ambiguity the artworks in False Idols become fleeting visions of a dreamscape, multiple narratives through multi-faceted referencing. In this, McFarlane's dual interests in history and the everyday become evident. His practice of throwing paint at the canvas and then wiping it off with rags, together with his abstract figuration, flattened picture sphere and non-specific horizon lines are all akin to abstract expressionist technique and all-over painting methodology. Yet the use of traditional painting techniques and earthy colour tones, his penchant for painting en plein air, and the almost allegorical subject matter of his artworks all serve as a reminder of by-gone art histories. It is not surprising then that an air of nostalgia permeates much of the work in this exhibition, enhanced by historical titles and vaguely familiar figuration. The belief that art is an expressive tool through which emotion and intellect can be communicated essentially undergirds McFarlane's practice, and in combining traditional ideas of painting with the everyday McFarlane essentially paints his own dreamy world.
Gus Fisher Gallery
Centre for Art Studies, University of Auckland
McFarlane was born in Wellington in 1966 and lives in Northland. He completed a Diploma of Fine Arts, (Honours) Otago School of Art in 1993. He has exhibited regularly in New Zealand in private and public galleries and has works in numerous private and public collections. He is teaching the visual arts degree in painting at Kerikeri Polytechnic.