Jock Macdonald at the AGGV

There’s a truly excellent Jock Macdonald retrospective currently showing at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. It runs to September 7th and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. They’ve put together an impressive collection of his work with highlights from all the way through his career, including a whole room full of the abstract expressionist works that constitute the last and most critically respected phase of his 30-plus years as a painter.

He began his career as a designer, and it was as Head of Design that he was hired by the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Art back in 1926, when he would have been in his late twenties. He took up painting with the encouragement of his colleague, Fred Varley, and his earliest works show quite a strong Varley influence. In addition to picking up Varley’s technique Macdonald also seemed to pick up a lot of Varley’s nature spiritualism. A concern for the spiritual realm, the world beyond the veil, would remain a constant in Macdonald’s work, even as the outward forms of his expression changed over the next 3 decades.

The exhibition is called “Evolving Form”, and maybe that’s apt, but I have some reservations which I’ll get to in a minute. Following his Varley period, you can see Macdonald picking up ideas from other painters like Emily Carr, and less fortunate influences like Lawren Harris. You can see where Harris, with his Theosophical interests, would appeal to Macdonald’s mystical side, but Macdonald’s Harris-inspired geometrical mandalas are to my eyes his weakest work, along with a couple of paintings that reflect the Harris’ mushy deco landscape style. But then I’ve never been a big fan of Harris (can you tell?).

Macdonald’s style changed again under the influence of a couple of British Surrealists, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, whom the Telegraph once described as the eeriest couple in art, although I think “eerie” is perhaps a nice word for what they were. Macdonald met them in Vancouver where they had relocated during the war, and they inducted him into the surrealist practice of automatism, drawing without consciously thinking about what you’re doing. Initially the results of these exercises seemed pretty weak, but by the early 50s Macdonald was using a modified version of this approach to produce some really interesting watercolours. These are the works in the show I like best, which puts me at odds with the critical consensus regarding his late-period abstractions.

Not that there’s any question the large abstract works from the last 3 or 4 years of his life are by far the most accomplished works in the show. They’re fine paintings. But at the same time, at this remove it seems to me they’re a lot like what a lot of other painters, many of them Macdonald’s students, were doing in Toronto in the late 50s. In this they simply carry on a pattern evident from the rest of the show: Jock Macdonald was really good at picking up on whatever was going on around him and running with it. That kept him in the mainstream, but at a cost. I get the sense that he spent more time expressing other people’s pictorial ideas than he did expressing his own.

So I guess my question here is: did Macdonald’s approach truly evolve, as the show’s subtitle would have it, or did it just change as the fashions changed? Macdonald’s late-period abstractions are often touted as the culmination of a lifetime of artistic development, and perhaps they were. But I can’t help wondering how Macdonald would have handled the 1960s, if he had lived to see them (he was 63 when he died in 1960). Would he have spent his last years as an abstract expressionist even as that movement petered out, or would he have continued to follow the trends into, say, colour field abstraction, Op Art and minimalism? We’ll never know, of course, but based on the evidence in this exhibition I suspect his work would have continued to evolve, or simply change, along with the times.

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