William Mackinnon: Strive for the light

20 October - 8 December 2020

Simon Lee Gallery is pleased to present Strive for the light, an exhibition of new paintings by Australian artist William Mackinnon, his first solo show in the UK. In this latest body of work, Mackinnon reflects on memories of trees in and around his family farm in western Victoria, and on formative experiences living in remote indigenous communities in the Kimberley region. Painted during a period of prolonged isolation as a result of lockdown, the symbol of the tree is imbued with a deep sense of longing for home, family, regrowth and regeneration. 

Mackinnon’s ‘psychological landscape’ paintings, as the artist refers to them, predominately portray Australian landscapes and are vast in manners both terrestrial and emotional. Interweaving personal and cultural histories, his work absorbs the intensity of our present circumstances and ultimately seeks to convey how it feels to be alive in the world today. Trees and roads, recurring motifs in Mackinnons work, dominate scenes constructed from memory, while minute details, such as cracks in roads, potholes, roots and termite mounds, become stand ins for tumultuous emotional states. Movement and displacement abound in his pictures, conveying a sense of temporal urgency. 

Throughout the exhibition, large paintings, made from acrylic, oil and enamel on linen (and a touch of glitter), present ancient, expansive trees in sparse, near barren settings, revealing Mackinnon’s painterly invention in his interpretation of Australia’s desert country. Knotted trunks and branches recall the familiar and iconic river red gums of his childhood: a tree that is endemic to Australia. The smooth white or cream-coloured bark and lance-shaped or curved leaves, provide much needed shelter from harsh sun temperatures, while acting here as symbols for unique family dynamics, with each branch competing for light and finding space to grow. Earthen tones of saffron and umber are used to depict sun-scorched, near desolate landscapes, while the articulation of the trees themselves frame bleached backgrounds and far-off horizon lines, revealing a desire for regrowth and regeneration. 

Darkness permeates many of Mackinnon’s paintings, and nocturnal car rides and dreamlike scenes, such as Same bed different dreams, are representative of his idiosyncratic style, revealing a passion for adventure. Ultimately, Mackinnon’s work plays on oppositions: light and darkness; comfort and threat; that which is deeply personal, yet profoundly universal. His large scale paintings alternately inspire feelings of anxiety and calm, an interplay that at once draws the viewer in and pushes them out. Imposing trees and vast landscapes are simultaneously welcoming and menacing, revealing on the one hand feelings of remoteness and abandonment – as seen in paintings such as Uprooted – while on the other, the intimacy and domesticity of family life, as in Learning to love the windand Keep it in the family.