In his work and it seems in his life, oil-painter (ostensibly) Alan Macdonald resists any pre-conceptions or attempts to place him neatly into a box. Of Scottish heritage but born and brought up in Malawi it was his formative years filled in the landlocked country where he explored with the freedom of “imaginative play”. The 56-year old attests that these early years “in Africa” were “important” to his life and of course his work.
In his work which spans some thirty years, his work references past classic eras while most evidently being work which is of now. Almost dream like in its conception his work is humorous and rebellious resisting convention with relish.
From our standpoint creative growth and exploration lies in resisting and at times challenging convention. At #itchysilk we embrace that mode of thought.
Tell us about life in Malawi and its impact on your life and work.
The older I get, the more I realize how important my formative years in Africa were. It was an old-fashioned childhood, that is, I was brought up without TV and so play was something that happened literally all the time. Days were full of slightly wild, imaginative play and freedom, making wire cars, highly competitive African hopscotch in the village or full-scale war games involving catapults, air pistols and fire.
The more open and freer I can become in my studio, like that fun-loving child, the more pure, profound and enlightening my paintings become. The artistic light first went on for me in Malawi, when a boy of 12 came into my class with the most incredible drawings that went from the white of the paper, to the darkest black that his pencil could muster. It ignited a fire, which has never gone out.
You trained in fine art apart from the obvious how did that training impact you in terms of the work you went on to create?
I guess that the most important effect of my education at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art was the fact that it opened my mind in all sorts of ways. For the first time in my life, I was able to do just what I wanted to do. Growing up in a non-artistic family, it was good to discover, on meeting the other students, that I wasn’t ‘a bit weird’ as my family thought, I was in fact an artist.
You refuse to be pigeonholed can you discuss this more in terms of your work?
On leaving college, I went all over the place artistically. I tried all sorts of things and one of them was abstract painting after being encouraged to do so by the abstract painter, Mali Morris. It worked for a while until I hit a brick wall again. I decided to try painting figuratively but thinking abstractly. You put things into a painting because you have a gut feeling that it wants to be there, but you’re not sure why. Eventually, after the initial explosion, you sit down and try to make sense of the beautiful chaos. This way of working took me to amazingly exciting places and I started to come up with a language that really worked for me.
My figures started to don period-like clothes because it felt right, not because I thought that it was a good idea. Now I feel that it has something to do with my up-bringing in Africa. The products turned up in the same way. Simple bars of chocolate or even Friesian Cows were mind-blowing to a kid who had been brought up in Malawi.
In the end, I looked inwards to find my way forward and if you dare to really be yourself, the work you produce will be unique and different.
Your work is so varied-where do you find inspiration?
Leonardo da Vinci and Whistler were the first artists that I really got into in those early years. It quickly evolved from there once I arrived at Art College and I became interested in just about everything that was going on, from American abstract expressionists to Francis Bacon. It was an amazing time for music too and my tastes were equally diverse, ranging from Bob Marley, The Smiths, The The, Sonic Youth, John Zorn and Thelonious Monk… amongst many more.
Your work seems to buck the artistic establishment.
I didn’t set out to buck the artistic establishment. There is, however, a rebellious streak that runs through me and I don’t like being told that there is only one way to do a thing. This world’s diversity is fantastic and should be celebrated and not restricted.
I fell in love with oil painting as a child and I have just carried on doing it despite all the voices that might say that its time has passed. I want to do modern, fresh oil paintings though, and I cherish the freedoms afforded to artists today. You need to be very aware of what is happening in the world around you, but then let it all filter through your sensibilities and into the artwork that you create.
Humour seems to be a tool you use in your work-can explain why?
Nothing pleases me more than when someone laughs out loud whilst looking at one of my paintings. As comedians are aware, humour is a subversive thing, breaking down barriers and making others more receptive to your message or point of view.
Years ago, a particularly tired, world-weary man came into my exhibition with an, ‘impress me if you can’ expression on his face. He trudged troll-like from painting to painting, unimpressed… that is, until he came to a painting of a man covered in tattoos with a row of pins in his forehead, called ‘Masochist’. It caused him to shake and finally burst out laughing. He then went back and looked again at all the paintings he had just trudged past, now taking his time, laughing and responding to them all. It confirmed for me the importance of humour in art.
Your paintings are almost dream like in their construct with each addition there creating the larger story.
Your subconscious communicates in riddles and plays poetic games that are fascinating and intellectually stimulating. You cannot avoid what is troubling or rumbling inside… it’s all there in oil on canvas if you are prepared to let go and just do; your loves, your hates, your fears and your dreams. The conscious mind eventually works its way through that twisted maze of imagery, necessarily clarifying and simplifying, without losing the raw energy created by the painting’s violent birth.
It’s like being taken on a thrilling journey, one in which I have little or no idea of the ultimate destination. The sense of adventure and excitement at the outset is addictive and once experienced, compensates for all the inevitable doubts along the way. When it eventually comes right, you arrive somewhere that is strangely familiar, but which you have never seen before. It’s a distant coast of you.
Childhood seems to feature in your work with visual references to tins of spam which are hard to ignore.
I suppose that in my time in Africa, tinned food played quite a large part of life, but it’s also their association with national treasures like Monty Python, which makes them cool and funny at the same time. It’s important what I put into a painting is right for the painting and has a timeless quality to it. I am very serious about what I do, however, sometimes a work needs you to lighten up and take a whimsical risk, which breaths air into the painting and lifts it up, Mozart-like to greater heights.
Is there an overall aim in your work?
I obviously want to express myself, but in so doing, entertain those that take the time to look. They need to leave the work with at least one question buzzing in their head, that way the painting lives on. People who look at my work should feel no fear but be free to make up their own minds about it. They might think of my paintings as playgrounds for inquisitive minds.