July 17 to August 14, 1991
The past decade heralded a return to painting – a return that simply revived many previous artistic styles of this century. However, William MacDonnell’s paintings go far beyond the parody and pastiche of so much eighties painting. MacDonnell inquires into the very language of paintings by examining painting’s aesthetic codes and stylistic conventions. As such, he seeks to situate painting within the context of its cultural development – to inquire into this medium’s relationship to history and the constriction of meaning.
MacDonnell self-consciously puts the aura of art in an ironic context. Painterly, romantic images seduce but this effect is cooled by MacDonnell’s geometric form and analytical imagery. This dual approach yields a critical examination of representation – specifically, the representation of history as constructed artifact. MacDonnell’s metaphoric use of the veil, rain and shadow makes direct reference to the loss of our own history. In our own time, we are removed from the horrors of the World Wars, Cambodia, the Spanish Civil War, the Riel Rebellion, “Desert Storm”, etc. We have become tourists in our own historical constructions – parks, monuments, TV mini-series, news conferences and, of course, the genre of history painting. For painting is tied to a 500-year tradition and, like the angels that MacDonnell appropriates from Botticelli, can only witness destruction...not intervene.
But MacDonnell does not merely wish to reconstruct historical events as reminders to what we should or should not remember. This artist’s project is to rupture the historical narrative that “history” tells. Traditional historical narrative follows a temporal progressive sequence, the plot. By using irony, parody and allegory, MacDonnell restructures the progression of historical events. He mixes text, images, various historical styles and events. The tradition of realist, historical narrative is broken. Now, as historical clues change, different, opposite and multiple meanings emerge.
For example, Shadowed Meditation, the Malatesta Temple (for Albert Speer), in the left panel, MacDonnell gives us the Malatesta Temple by Renaissance architect, Albertini, a major contributor to the theory and technique of perspective. But ironically, MacDonnell derails this loaded image of perspective by placing the temple against a flat 20th century colour field. In the right panel, MacDonnell introduces a representational image into the 20th century formalist picture plane – questioning a style which explicitly barred against any reference to the external world. History tells us that the Malatesta Temple was consecrated to beauty. But this classical idealization is “shadowed” by the evil deeds of the dictator for whom the temple was constructed. By literally shadowing the dedication in paint and mixed meaning, MacDonnell demonstrates how historical narratives obscure the complexity of history and certain events are ignored in favour of one dominant telling.
By creating doubled and multiple representations, MacDonnell reveals the instability of meaning. The many meanings we use to make sense of our world are constructed but made to seem natural just as Renaissance perspective, an invention of the 15th century, seems to be the natural way we see. MacDonnell invites us to question our assumptions that representation is fixed and meaning is stable. By denying the authority of one interpretation, he empowers the viewer to make his/her own meaning. And, just as MacDonnell questions the validity of historical narrative, he invites us to consider how we depend of narrative structure to make sense of our own lives.
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