October 22 - December 7, 2019
► Installation views
Javier Aparicio –director of Art Projects Ibiza in conversation with William Mackinnon– sheds light over this new body of work, its origin and his overall path becoming an artist.
For his first solo exhibition in a European collection, Mackinnon draws on formative experiences living in remote indigenous communities in central Australia and the Kimberley.
JA: I believe that in order to understand Phoenix, we need to go back in time. I see you did internships at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice and Chinati Foundation in Texas; how old were you and what was your drive?
WM: I was 27. I hadn’t yet gone to art school, but I was working as an artist assistant in London. For the last 8 or so years I had created this sort of self-styled apprenticeship. Moving around taking jobs in various parts of the artworld, learning, travelling, visiting major collections and earning enough to live and make work
JA: After finishing at Chinati Foundation you went to London to enrol at the Chelsea School of Art and Design
WM: Yeah, it was quite lucky. I had a job lined up with John Chamberlain, but I couldn’t get a US visa so I went back to London and was accepted. It was a turning point
JA: In what way?
WM: In taking myself seriously
JA: But you didn’t stay in London
WM: I had had a very interesting but pretty tough few years there working as an artist assistant and going to art school. It was a time/money thing. Those big cities are double edged: you spend a lot of your energy just trying to survive. I wanted to do an MA and it was going to be too expensive so at that time I took the leap to put my practice first, otherwise I would always be an artist assistant. That’s why I went back to Australia
JA: After you did your MA at the Victorian College of the arts you moved around a lot
WM: Yes, I was searching for something, I guess. I decided to explore my own country and culture. I had always been curious about our first nations peoples since working at a framer’s and seeing the enigmatic spear –straightening paintings of Turkey Tolson and a Rover Thomas painting that hung on the walls. And I knew these old masters were aging
JA: Tell me more about the experience
WM: Wow, that is not an easy thing. It is difficult to evoke, endlessly rich and complex… Probably the two most intense years of my life, which is why I am still compelled to paint from this time. The strangeness and terrifying beauty of the Kimberley, and the scale and subtle raw power of the western desert has to be seen and experienced first hand. I was asked to help with a ”back to country trip” which is where the elders revisit a place of spiritual and cultural significance to pass on this knowledge to the next generations. It was 10 days through the Western desert which changed the way I think about Australia, our contested history and our first nations peoples
JA: Tell me about Papunya Tula
WM: It is the longest running indigenous art-center in central Australia where I worked for a year
JA: You were a field officer, what is that?
WM: I was employed as a field officer to stretch canvases, mix paint, record the stories about what was painted (often in their native tongue, Pintupi)
JA: Which are the major differences you found between the art you were discovering there and the one you left behind in Europe?
WM: It was like going to China where there is a completely different system of knowledge and history and creative expression. An alternative cultural cannon, but instead of this being 6000 years old, it was 65000
JA: Did you find what you were looking for?
WM: Not really. In an attempt to get to know what I thought I knew about my own culture and country I found something very different and “other”. I found people with their own history, language, law and cannon of painting that rivaled the European one I had left behind and which I wasn’t part of
JA: So again you felt like an outsider
WM: It was a confronting time. I guess most artists come to, trying to find your own voice; it led me to a new approach. That I was going to make paintings about the world around me and what was going on inside my head. It was so liberating, and the work then started to flow
JA: And how was your painting during this period?
WM: It started to come out pretty fast and free. I could feel I was getting closer to the way of painting I had always wanted to do. Kind of rough and fluent
JA: Different to art school?
WM: Yes. I had made this shift from wanting to be “international”. Art school was influenced by post-modernism, structuralism and an empty eclecticism and I turned that outward international thinking to one that was unified, personal and national and authentic
JA: Is here where you feel you found your own voice as an artist?
JA: For people not familiar with Indigenous Australia, what does being in that community mean?
WM: It is very complex and confronting as I was coming face to face with our history. One that is very different to what we were taught at school which explained Australia was an empty land that Europeans sailed into. It was much more violent and contested. It is something we as a country have failed to reconcile –it is an open wound. Here I was surrounded by the longest continual living culture that stretches back 65000 years with the most incredible paintings which the best can rival anything that has ever been produced by Western culture. I was getting to know people with a very deep connection to their country, it was not an empty land
JA: Was it tough?
WM: Very. I really felt that was their land. At times it was like being in the wild west where two civilizations had clashed and the traces and damage were still being lived out
JA: So, can we say the indigenous artists influenced you?
WM: Indirectly. There was so much that was “out of bounds” that influenced what I could do, which was painting what was immediately in front of me and how I felt
JA: Why is it that after so many years, you are going back to that experience in the Kimberley and central Australia as a subject matter in your painting?
WM: Maybe it’s a bit like Springsteen and New Jersey, or Proust and his childhood. It was a formative time of great personal and artistic growth where a whole lot of things started to click. Then I had to leave suddenly, as the experience took a toll on me personally. It was all very raw. The first series I painted after leaving Papunya Tula, were like sketches from a war zone, just collecting and witnessing. It always felt like I was just scratching the surface, I had tapped into this rich vein where there was much more to say
JA: Can we read a sort of connection between you settling in Ibiza and going back to those memories for your paintings?
WM: I have some subjects I seem to return to over and over again. The road, the home, the ocean, the nocturne, and now maybe the desert. I have even made over 20 paintings about bathrooms and power sockets. They have become my personal lexicon. Returning to these subjects in a way is more revealing about how I have changed and how my painting has changed. Repetition is the key; it seems to be a catalyst for invention for me. Re-examining a subject over long periods, going deeper into it to extract something interesting and distilled. Circling around some truth and taking shots at it, getting closer, hitting and missing
JA: Are all these intense experiences reflected immediately in the work you started doing after your return?
WM: Sometimes. But more often it is a slow percolation. A slow drip. I think you have to really know and understand a subject before you can use it
JA: Your career has been long; which are the main differences –both in technique and subject matter– of your paintings from the Australian landscapes, and these Phoenix ones?
WM: I feel like I am just hitting my straps! It takes a long time to form as an artist.In the Phoenix paintings there has been a lot of technical innovation, as well as a shift in methodology. I am working on a single canvas at a time; something I had to do when I had a surfing accident earlier in the year. This has meant the duration of each painting is sped up. This changes a lot how a painting turns out as they are less premeditated. The outcome is less controlled, and it has injected a flow into the making and vitality into the surface quality. I am using more collage and also sorts of things like frottage, sanding and staining and printing. I doubled the studio size and it feels more like a laboratory of an amateur scientist at times than an artists’ studio. I am generally bringing to bare a greater fluency of painting that is less dependent on drawing, and more adventurous formally.They feel complex spatially but also more playful. I am making discoveries of new ways of making a painting. It feels wide open and I think this shows in this body of work, that I only half know what I am doing
JA: And I can see in terms of subject matter the earlier Lucky Country paintings were more graphic, smaller and less evolved thematically and formally
WM: Yes I feel the Phoenix paintings are more mythic or spectral
JA: I see bigger themes seen through your personal experience
WM: That is the sweet spot. Hopefully like a novel, where it evokes our time and what it feels like to be alive. That the work is emotionally and formally engaging. That through the personal we also see our time, history and culture…
JA: Why did you entitle this show Phoenix?
WM: Living amongst so much dysfunction took its toll. At the end of those years I was just hanging on. My nerves were shot and I had a breakdown. At the time it was awful and terrifying but putting myself back together was really the making of me and my work. This is where Phoenix comes from. I emerged from the time as an artist that was stronger, stranger and more fully formed.
EN / SP