Thursday, November 15, 2012

Virginia MacKenny - Waymarker

Vitrginia MacKenny’s exhibition 'Waymarker’ on at David Krut in Cape Town at the moment, marks a philosophical enquiry into being and survival in times of crisis, and her deepening concerns about our disconnect from the natural world. It marks a personal journey and  a ‘meditation on the move’ against a global backdrop of unease and uncertainty.

The darkly saturated pthalo oil paintings are echoed by their bleached-out counterparts and a natural chronology leads to the small watercolours: the large paintings on the outer walls were made before MacKenny set off on a 700km walk along the Chemin St Jaques ancient pilgrimage route in France, and so the watercolours made en route, are waymarkers of her unfolding journey. The viewer moves from intonations of swimming and flying to walking as ‘a literal act of grounding’; the walk becoming a physical response, if you like, to the concerns raised in the larger works.



Movement is implied in the large canvases: the plane has crash-landed, the house has been ripped from its foundations, the manta rays are swimming away from us, but these are all captured moments, not directly witnessed by us. They are events received via our daily engagement with mass media. This makes us removed onlookers of a world in which we are nevertheless immersed. While this may be an indirect comment on our increased engagement with technologies of virtual experience, the images are also redolent with MacKenny’s continuous concerns: suspension, transition, afloat-ness, between-ness, and a ‘gathering together’ of crosscurrents: sky, sea, flight, swimming, being adrift/grounded.


These themes were evident in her two previous solo exhibitions Foam along the Waterline (2008) and Crossing (2009) as was her concern with ‘an ecology in extremis’ here again recurring: the home uprooted by a tsunami in Fukishima, the plane crash landed on the Hudson river, the manta rays in mass migration. If this is an answer to Foucault’s enquiry into the nature of the present, the paintings remind us that ‘…the things that seem most evident to us are … formed in the confluence of encounters and chances, during the course of a precarious and fragile history’ (Foucault,1988:37).

MacKenny’s trademark spatial ambiguities and singular isolated objects set against monochrome fields previously raised questions about embedded-ness and immersion. The philosophical question  whether the objects were in space or part of the space in which they were moored, are here dissolved. Her style is looser than in the earlier paintings and there is a tangible merging of subject matter and ground. The treatment is more immediate; sharp delineations which distance the viewer fall away. One is pulled into an embedded-ness where backdrops merge with subject matter to fuse image and meaning. This overwhelming now-ness is reinforced by the oscillation of the brush marks in the dark blue paintings “Intersection” and “Afloat”. No separation. This is the world we, and MacKenny, inhabit now and which is embedded in us, as Merleau-Ponty would have it (1964).

“Intersection” is a revisited image: in its previous incarnation it was carefully defined, but in this exhibition the plane emerges from a timeless and deliberate fusion of sky and sea. Detached from location and its natural element, it begs the question of survival. The people are alive, but where to from here? The suspended miracle moment holds no future promise. The plane could still sink. The painting’s light counterparts appear to move the moment onto an ethereal plane; like the after-image which follows an eye blink. This flip from saturated dark on dark to barely visible bleached and light on white is however not an abstraction. The image is still there, to be teased out through close inspection like the immaterial counterpart of the real, or an inner reflection of the outer.

“Afloat” strengthens this feeling of displacement. Is the house submerged or suspended, floating or sinking, intact or broken, its inhabitants saved or doomed? It is hard to say, as with the plane, if the aching uncertainty is subtended by hope or not.

“Rays” may simply be a glimpse of circumglobal migratory manta rays swimming away from us but is also not without un-ease. We are looking at aquatic creatures commonly known to ‘fly’ through water; a subversion if you like of the plane in which water has displaced air. We know them to be transient, and the threat of sinking also lurks; like sharks they need to be constantly on the move.

In both the oil paintings and watercolours the ‘solastalgia’ of Foam Along the Waterline (2008) is again evoked by departure, disaster, and human failure: 'In a world of rapid change the customary centres of … refuge seem unable to hold’ (MacKenny, 2008).

Juxtaposed with the above are the intimate ‘encounters’ of the small watercolours; fitting ‘snapshots’ or ‘post cards’; the traditional form of traveller’s messages home. Images of a starry night, flowers in a niche in a church, a view of the ‘incorruptible’ body of St Bernadette, large terasse umbrellas that take on a monkish look as they are wrapped for the night, trees behind a church, are gathered at the speed of walking. These relative ‘certitudes ’ offer momentary refuge and evoke other efforts by environmentally concerned artists and pilgrims and remind us that ‘… what is given in experience and what renders experience possible correspond to one another in an endless oscillation’ (Foucault, 2001: 336).

6 x 6 watercolours over 6 weeks

The smallness of the show in no way detracts from the big themes; on the contrary. 'Waymarker’  situates MacKenny and points to a largeness uncomfortable to articulate. It also alludes to starting point, end point, and endless transition. This is an exhibition worth seeing.


Foucault, M. (I988). Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. Routledge: Great Britain.

Foucault, M. (2001). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Routledge Classics.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (I964). The Primacy of Perception. Northwestern University Press.

MacKenny, V. (2006). Surfacing – Levels of Flatness. Exhibition Catalogue: Foam Along the Waterline.

MacKenny, V. (2008). A Brief Consideration of Correspondence – Some reflections on Artistic Process. Exhibition Catalogue: Foam along the Waterline

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