Off-duty performers, families, and harried shoppers gather in groups, perch on steps, and walk down streets. Sublimely ordinary people, etched in shades of grey, populate the beautiful images of Paul McLachlan’s Masters exhibition ‘(Un)Common Ground’. The prints are sensitive, evocative and charmingly disarming; familiar and fantastical sitting comfortably alongside each other. The work for ‘(Un)Common Ground’ was begun in a pre-quake, complacent Christchurch and it has evolved alongside and through the disasters that have befallen the city. In the process McLachlan has realised images that are an archive of a Christchurch that now exists only behind red tape. Without intending to, McLachlan’s work has become a tribute to a lost city.
Walking around the exhibition space, McLachlan’s works are arranged in groups, often mirrored or reflected, playing with ideas of refraction. The images themselves curve sensuously out from the wall, moving from the traditional, static two-dimensional mode of presentation to a more physical imposition that references the real-life spaces of the images. Each group has an individual narrative and moving through the works is an experience reminiscent of walking through the city, observing different people as you travel.
The first experience I had of the works, however, was of crouching in McLachlan’s icebox studio and removing the thick paper from within layers and layers of membrane like newsprint, each individual print swathed in a skin of protective sheets. Stacked one on top of the other and left lying beneath a heavy piece of wood, excavating the prints was like hunting for treasure. The experience of discovering the images intensified the private, intimate experience these works suggest. Seeing them again in the exhibition context doesn’t disrupt my initial impressions of the quiet intensity of the works. The lonely charm still resonates despite the lack of tactility.
At once voyeuristic and poignant, McLachlan’s works contain a consistently inward focus. Despite their sweeping scapes they have an absorbed intimacy with their inhabitants amidst painterly, otherworldly backgrounds. The characters themselves are mostly caught in contemplative states, McLachlan exploring the insularity of cities. He uses this containment and exaggerates the way people move independently within groups in an urban context. The post-modern city, the view from it and about it, are played out in unison on his picture planes.
There is also a sense of time and space inherent in the works; however, they are theatrical panoramas that are often more a meditation on landscape as a genre, than a depiction of a particular place. McLachlan has not presented the viewer with symbols that can be easily deciphered, offering instead a kaleidoscopic array of allusive titles and scenarios that are often inter-textual. The works have a distinctly suggestive rather than representational approach, evoking impressions of, or reactions to, a subject, rather than depicting it literally. Capturing urban environments,
McLachlan removes them from their context by actively manipulating the source images, digitally painting over, replacing, and altering them to create a surreal representation of the space. This sense of remove is then emphasised by the transferral of the image from photographic record to plate; the final images characterised by their interior conflict between subtle brush-marks, deliberate signs of the artist’s hand, and their photographic clarity and definition. McLachlan’s city-scapes then become ambiguous and multi-layered giving the resulting prints a molten, fluid quality. Rich, textured surfaces add another element to this work giving each piece a sense of impermanence. Up close the barely visible brushstrokes are angular and hint at the ever-changing nature of his subject through weathering, erosion and time. This idea of time and temporality is one that haunts the works, especially with the spectre of the quakes looming beyond the edges of the paper. Time is elusive, intangible. In the absence of concrete evidence, poetic documentation is all we have to provide this reflection of temporal experience; photographs become “fossils” that as Roland Barthes suggests turn time into “visible artefacts” for our observation, interpretation and experience. McLachlan’s images, however, are less artefacts, more myths, or stories; the “truth” of the photograph deliberately undermined by the artist’s active involvement in subverting them. They become certification not certainty; the lineage of documentary photography he draws upon married to a surrealism or romanticism that beautifies and isolates the images in their own indistinct time and space, transforming the raw data of source material into a mnemonic of a Third Space: a dream-world, or a staged encounter.
The inhabitants of the artist’s works are captured in action, not posed; each individual image containing a brief moment of time. When looked at in series, these characters play out a narrative, a movement, a change or growth, the images revealing a looping itinerary that retraces routes and revisits previous works. Somehow McLachlan has created images that claim both passage and pause. In fact, McLachlan’s images hold a wealth of contradictions within them; static and moving, remembering and forgetting, familiarity and estrangement, the exterior manifestation of interior states. In them the ephemeral becomes weighty and weighted; each group lent a sense of theatricality by his composition and the active post-production staging. Light is manipulated, saturated, and altered to throw the unconscious performers into illuminated relief.
This theatricality is heightened by the mystery of the works. McLachlan’s removal of key props and environmental constraints creating a void in which the viewer has to try and make sense of what they are seeing in a new context. The young men in LVE GRN appear to be dancing or taking part in some stylised ritual, made odder by the disproportionately undersized participant, notable for his non-participation. The flattening of the background throws the foreground, with its distinct shadows, into clearer focus, subtly altering the perception of the audience and again adding to that sense of remove from a contemporary context.
This sense of timelessness is underscored by clever historical references within the works, enriching the images further with their subtleties. Kapa Haka, with its staggered performers, teases out allusions to the pink and white terraces, and early staged photographs of “noble savages”. The deliberate compositional similarities serve to highlight the juxtaposition of these performers, caught unprepared and introspective, with their knowingly choreographed and conscious predecessors.
McLachlan’s motivations for moving into the often sidelined practice of printmaking aren’t made obvious, but personally I feel there is a beautiful sense of finality with the etching process. After many decisions, tries and guesses in its pre-production phase, the image emerges in one single moment in time; the parallels resonate between this and the “still-life” quality of McLachlan’s portraits. McLachlan’s technical prowess and almost obsessive attention to detail shine through in this medium, where his handling of the technique realises the sensitive, nuances and complex shading; the various registers of dark and light superbly extracted.
McLachlan’s skill extends to his photographic sourcing; his response to the randomness of the city and its population is a controlled slippage between the imposition of form, and the urge to explore what is actually an abstracted landscape. He has learnt from the camera’s unthinking ability to squash space and to create dramatic foreshortenings. This
trope emerges in the way in which he flattens the perspective to the point where the painting can be read as an ‘all-over’ image, whilst at the same time allowing a limited, recessed reading. This creates an ambiguity, deepened by the editing process in which McLachlan “paints” the images, cutting, cropping, blending and manipulating the original till it can no longer be read as such.
Reading this you might be thinking, this is all very well, but what are we not talking about? Looking at McLachlan’s work can be a little unnerving, disturbing even. Quite apart from the artistic and technical merits of the images, there is another aspect that complicates and disrupts a purely aesthetic reading. McLachlan is an unashamed voyeur, his subjects completely unaware of his actions. He doesn’t brief them or ask permission and his calculated “spying” forces the viewer of his images into the same role. Appreciation of the beauty of his prints is offset by a discomfort that you are an active and voluntary participant in this trespass on strangers’ privacy.
McLachlan offers no explanation or apology and you get the impression that the ethical or moral implications haven’t even occurred to him; or that, if they have, he operates on a different plane where these things have no claim when it comes to the making of art. Though perhaps socially gauche, the results are not offensive or perverted in any way. Instead, it’s as if McLachlan has taken our own curiosity and natural voyeuristic tendencies and rendered them on paper rather than hiding behind sunglasses or averted gazes. How many times have you watched strangers and hypothesised what their lives are like? Here McLachlan makes public his observations and legitimises his fictionalised backgrounds, manipulating the subjects to fit his stories, just as we, in a less conscious way, do. The presumption with which he works has the dual qualities of rendering beauty from the banal and providing an edge to the quietness of his prints.
I do know that I have never loved an artwork I can master completely. My love requires a sense that something has escaped me. This quality of cryptic excess may be responsible for the language people use to talk about seeing art as if an inanimate thing were endowed with an elusive, almost sacred power. In a culture flooded by facile images that race past us on a screen, peek out at us from magazines or loom over us in a city street - pictures so heavily coded, so easily read that they ask nothing of us but our money - looking long and hard at an artwork may allow us entry into the enigma of seeing itself, because we must struggle to make sense of the image in front of us. McLachlan’s works in‘(Un)Common Ground’ are captivating, indefinable and, I think, a fitting memoriam to the city they immortalise.
Suzannah Newton, 2011