New York

Alastair Mackinven, Untitled, 2020, oxidized iron powder and oil on canvas, 63 × 86".

Alastair Mackinven, Untitled, 2020, oxidized iron powder and oil on canvas, 63 × 86".

Alastair Mackinven

The haunted, dreamlike atmosphere of Alastair Mackinven’s paintings hearkens back to the late nineteenth century—to the era of symbolism, aestheticism, and decadence. While many of the forms in his tableaux may be well-defined, one always has the suspicion that each picture’s hazy and interfusing hues are acting independently of the obscure irresolvable dramas that seem to unfold in the work. His figurative scenarios, full of eerie doings in intangible and indeterminate spaces, are enigmatic: In one of the works (all are Untitled, 2020), the head of an unsmiling woman, pale as a marble statue under multicolored fluorescent lights—and bearing an expression as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s—is accompanied by a dog, perhaps a whippet, whose eye flashes a radioactive red. Elsewhere, another woman, nude, sits up in a pool of water that in the foreground falls off a hard perpendicular edge, as though flowing from a tabletop. Her head is shrouded in deep shadow, though her body is illuminated, and behind her skulks a sort of sphinx dog, its coat as scarlet as the reflections in the water. In another canvas, what might be a limbless statue of a male figure seems to stand watch over a table on which sits nothing other than an ordinary plastic cigarette lighter. In still another, a couple, bathed in pale-blue light, lie beneath a pattern of rhomboid forms. The man sleeps soundly under a golden blanket, while his partner, under her own whitish cover, looks restless. Her knee is bent and her eyes may be open—it’s hard to tell.

Are there more certain stories behind this imagery, or is the otherworldly mood the main offering? The exhibition title, “Dlnrg [oeeey],” was hardly calculated to leave any clues. And the artist’s statement? In this text, Mackinven denounces the miserable cultural insularity of England, his home country. The myth of the British eccentric, he says, leads only to a dead end, since, as the artist writes, “the lone fire of the eccentric burns out, leaving nothing but colorful anecdotes and relics too sodden with the ghost of their author” to be more than “an outward gestural signifying of singularity” as recompense for “postcolonial ennui.” Mackinven thereby abrogated in advance any hope that one might locate his work within some extended heritage that might somehow unite, for instance, J. M. W. Turner’s chromatic intensity with William Blake’s mythographic imagination. As for past interpretations of Mackinven’s work, he seems to have flummoxed the critics: In twenty-five years of artistic activity, discursive engagement has been practically nil—this magazine, for example, has run only a single review of a two-person show in which he was involved, along with a couple of other very brief mentions.

So viewers are on their own. We have to look at these paintings first of all as physical entities, not communicative devices. In fact, their sense of material obduracy—in contrast to their imagistic nebulousness—is noteworthy: As it turns out, Mackinven paints on canvases prepared with oxidized iron powder, which is what gives his surfaces their feeling of mineral density: a dry, deeply absorbed quality reminiscent of fresco. But in place of the immediacy of buon fresco, the paintings have a temporal thickness that mimics the material one: The eye slowly explores the artist’s endlessly blending and separating hues, which one can imagine were arrived at only gradually. Yet the images trapped in these surfaces seem transitory, as though one could blow them away with a single strong breath, leaving the gorgeous colors floating there, as it were, naked. These chromatic polymorphous compounds are enormously satisfying, and one comes to wonder whether the paintings’ impenetrable encounters are meant simply to redirect viewers to the nonrpresentational—to send them the long way around, but giving them so much to observe along the way.