William Mackinnon  2020 Learning to love the wind

In 2018 Mackinnon was injured in a surfing accident, which meant he had to change the way he painted in order to produce his large-scale canvases. This injury, followed by pandemic-induced lockdown, may have tested his mettle, however he has come to appreciate that such obstacles can trigger breakthroughs, thus the title of this show, Learning to love the wind.

Prior to the accident, the Melbourne-born, Ibiza-based artist usually had five or six canvases on the go simultaneously. “I’d do laps around the studio, getting lost in a little corner of one painting before moving onto the next one,” says Mackinnon, who works predominantly in oil, acrylic and automotive enamel. Although it was disjointed, the method suited him. “It sucked up all the complexity of the self that isn’t so unified.”

Following the mishap, Mackinnon’s energy levels were reduced, so he had to adapt accordingly and began focusing on one canvas from start to finish. Something of an ordeal at first, the change in approach led to a creative breakthrough. “These new works have a vitality and freshness that I really respond to,” he enthuses. “There’s more slippage, because I have more flow. As paintings, they’re less ‘precious’ and have a raw energy to them now.” 

During the making of this show, coronavirus crash-landed in Europe and began decimating Spain, among other countries. “Things were scary, especially at the start, when no one knew what sort of havoc it would wreak,” he says. “I moved my studio home for a while and painting became something to cling to. It’s fair to say that these works have absorbed the intensity of the period in which they were made.”

The triptych Burke and Wills II was painted “right in the heart of lockdown” and is the largest work in the series. Mackinnon commits himself to just one triptych per year – usually at the beginning – and regards it as another kind of obstacle. “I’m throwing down a challenge to myself, because they’re complicated paintings to make work at that scale.”

At two metres in height and four and a half metres in length, Burke and Wills II is ambitious on all fronts, its crossroads-to-nowhere panorama by turns chromatically rich and austere. Holding pictorial illusion and surface effect in perfect tension, its hallucinogenic terrain suggests a landscape of the mind as much as any traversed by the ill-fated nineteenth-century explorers.

Doffing its cap to Sidney Nolan’s modernist renderings thereof (in two series painted in 1948–50 and 1961–62), Mackinnon’s interpretation of desert country is peppered with termite mounds in canary yellow and burnt sienna, and bloated boab trees with magenta trunks and emerald-green leaves. (There’s another iteration of this scene in the companion painting, Post-traumatic Growth.) A sky-blue road carries the eye along at an oblique angle, its abraded surface revealing cracks, potholes, pavement markings and a misplaced gutter.

“Australians spend a lot of time driving, which for me represents consciousness,” explains Mackinnon. “You’re in this bubble and you have some control over where you’re going. What’s behind you in the rearview mirror is the past and what’s ahead is the future. Cars and roads have always had an emotional dimension for me because, as the child of divorced parents, I was always moving between two family spaces, and that was very loaded.”

Mackinnon utilises an array of techniques, among them applying a mixture of acrylic and plaster of paris to motifs such as roads and trees before sanding them back to create diffused light and additional texture. “In Burke and Wills II, the road feels like a thin skin through which nature is pushing,” says Mackinnon. “A fire has swept through – that’s charcoal on raw linen – and little bits of grass are coming up. There’s been obliteration and now we have regrowth.”

Life cycles have been front of mind for Mackinnon, whose young son learned to crawl during lockdown. Living in a forest on a quiet part of the popular resort island, the artist, his wife and their child were permitted to wander along small local roads. “So, those three months consisted of uncertainty and fear contrasted with simple sweet domesticity. My son was teething at the time, and on the roads that we walked, I’d see teeth appear in puddles, and cracks and bruises in the bitumen. This was something that I brought into the work – the road becomes a malleable symbol of an inner state. It was a strange and intense time.”

It’s a theme further explored in The New Family, a masterly arrangement of monumental red gums in an oversized vertical format (another challenge the painter set for himself). The trees’ entangled branches and fused trunks hint at struggle and dysfunction, while their hollows and hacked-off limbs resemble gaping maws. “Sometimes you have to fight for air and identity within the extended familial structure,” says the artist, who comes from a large blended family. “And now there’s an added dimension, in that I’m negotiating what it means to be a father – to have a son – as opposed to just being free to roam the world.”

Sparing in his inclusion of figures within the landscape, Mackinnon prefers to imply signs of life courtesy of cars, campervans and caravans (see, for instance, Foggy Brain/Teething and In My Secret Life). “I’m interested in how objects can be suggestive of emotional states,” he says. “For example, caravans evoke intimacy and domesticity, but also freedom and movement.”

As a mid-career artist who’s exhibited in Australia and overseas for close to two decades, Mackinnon is increasingly alert to “the delicate thread” that connects one painting – and body of work – to the next. “Something is revealed as the way forward. Battling through difficulty towards something beautiful is what it means to be human, to be conscious and to have potential. Ultimately, I’m trying to convey what it feels like to be alive in the world.”

– Tony Magnusson, June 2020