Donna McLean: Dark and Bright
Donna McLean paints images of rest and proportion. Her paintings are predominantly dark, but they’re always focused about a source of light. The light is, in a very real sense, more important than the dark. But one could not exist without the other. Rather like God and the Devil, they define each other, twin opposing forces in our mysterious modern world. If that suggests strife between dark and light, McLean’s paintings nevertheless manage to achieve a reconciliation, a balance, which in pictorial terms is largely satisfying. The moral ground may be unsure – but in this age when is it not? – yet the image offers a promise of peace, a chance to pause and consider. A moment of perfectly poised stillness. We should not argue with that.
McLean’s subjects are predominantly architectural – staircases, facades of buildings, alleyways – but she has also recently embarked upon a series of portraits of a girl with a close-cropped head. These haunting images are beautiful but enigmatic: there is something androgynous about the face. McLean aimed at depicting the other, going beyond the anonymous and towards the radically alien. The morality here is oddly fluid. The same girl is portrayed sitting between tottering stacks of books which loom over her. She looks like some mad philosopher in pursuit of ultimate truth – or perhaps in secret possession of it. The image is perhaps one of imprisonment, yet it radiates light.
The architectural pictures inevitably tend to be more rooted, with some of the stage-set grand drama of Piranesi or James Pryde. Here is a sense of time suspended. One of the most riveting of recent subjects is the Imhotep building, a funerary complex dating back more than 4000 years to 3rd dynasty Egypt. McLean has depicted part of the facade, a wall that extends for more than a mile and is 60 feet high. This vast presence is foregrounded by an exquisitely painted still-life of pebbles and twigs, which has all the poignant particularity of a night sky or desert by Vija Celmins. The tiny details reassert the ordinary and everyday in the face of ancient grandeur and death. An emotional element is introduced by the suggestion of a figure lurking uneasily in the doorway amid the grass and weeds of encroaching nature. McLean sieved fine sand into the paint to achieve the textures she wanted for this painting. Here is a particularly fine and subtly modulated surface – predominantly grey but with accents of ochre and rose, sage and sky.
Another particularly powerful image is of a section of the Westway, the motorway that dominates west London. McLean concentrates on the huge ribbed bulk of the concrete span rearing up over the city, which is pictured dwarfed beneath it. The lighted windows of miniature tower blocks gleam in the dusk, and a figure steps into the light. What is he doing here? Who is he? What does he represent? There are no definite answers, though his presence undoubtedly thickens the emotional content of the image, challenging its structure and identity. Maybe he is there for this reason alone.
Sometimes the specificity of the fall of light, or the depth and positioning of shadows, is sacrificed to the needs of the painting. Details may be altered or space contracted. This is because the picture has to be self-contained – not simply a descriptive or realistic account of a particular time and place, but a thing in its own right, a work of art which has its own rules and demands. Similarly, it must have a distinct emotional identity, though this may be a complex message, rather than a single clear statement. After all, McLean likes art which ventures dangerously close to sentiment but doesn’t collapse into it. She wants to be moved.
These paintings are deceptively brownish in tinge and temper, and at first sight they can appear to be the aesthetic equivalent of that long-vanished staple of lodging-house food: gravy soup. Their quietness is however a strength. McLean may rely heavily on ivory black, Vandyke brown and Paynes grey, but the deliberate restricting of her palette has enabled her to deepen her effects, with considerable subtlety and richness. This is partly due to increasing assurance and technical skill, and partly to her own emotional response to and understanding of her subject.
Surprisingly un-melancholy, despite the intense solitariness of so many of her settings, McLean’s work is notable for the warmth of the light depicted. Her paintings give off a rich golden effulgence, quite unlike the sickly orange glow exuded by cities at night, the rotten halo of what is perversely called ‘light pollution’. These paintings have a distinctive human warmth (nearly all contain a figure, albeit a ghostly or inconspicuous presence), as one might expect of an artist inspired and haunted by Vermeer and Rembrandt.
McLean has an intriguing ability to give precise information about a locality, and simultaneously to be vague about the larger context. This is an art of details and close-ups, backed up by fade-out and blur. In this way, what could be urban squalor is rendered almost regal, certainly distinguished. McLean is much assisted by her use of a gesso ground which can be sanded back and re-painted, textured and burnished and buffed up in a useful variety of ways. It seems to add weight and density to the paintings and ideally suits her preoccupation with the dark and light polarity.
McLean orchestrates the geometry of her architectural subjects with inventive skill. Flanking verticals and barrel vaults are deployed with succinctness and verve, while the dynamics of the composition remain understated but inflexible. For example, look at the beautiful view of London as seen from the platform of Bayswater tube station. McLean has painted a subtly modulated passage of verticals and horizontals in delicate bands of pink and blue, intensely suggestive and atmospheric, with a church spire rising through it. Or examine the complex yet satisfying curves of McLean’s stairwells. (In this connexion, it seems pertinent to mention McLean’s substantial collection of fossils. The spirals of the ammonites are echoed in the movement of the stairs. Similarly, the opalescence to be found in so many examples from McLean’s extensive shell collection is like the glow emanating from these dark images.)
As Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections: ‘As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.’ Donna McLean aims to bring us such enlightenment through her softly radiant paintings.