Donna Mclean



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Born in Lancashire

City & Guilds Art School, London

Albermarle Gallery, London (solo show)
National Portrait BP Exhibition

Albermarle Gallery, London (group show)
Prisoners Abroad, Black Bull Gallery (group show)
National Portrait BP Exhibition
Just Art ’91, The Barbican, London (group show)
Discerning Eye, Mall Galleries, London. Llewellyn Alexander Award

ART1994, Business Design Centre, London
Beaux Arts, London, (solo show) Catalogue essay by Marina Vaizey

Hunting Exhibition Prize Winner
Beaux Arts, London (solo show). Catalogue essay by Sir Richard Rogers
ART2000, Business Design Centre, London

Beaux Arts, London (solo show). Catalogue essay by Andrew Lambirth

Private Worlds, Beaux Arts London (solo show). Catalogue essay by Ian McEwen

Ian McEwan 2007

The Art of Darkness

The mind, so begins a recent book on neuroscience, has a mind of its own. Anyone who has ever spent ten minutes ‘lost in thought’ knows that he is never entirely free to chose what to think about. Scraps of memory, a line of recent conversation, the familiar mental shape of a personal difficulty, a sudden pulse of guilt, sharp longing, a half formed ambition or pleasurable anticipation – they arise unbidden, then braid and merge and displace each other. These unspoolings are not exactly random; they are as much a helpless function of personality as of the totality of a life’s experiences. We are never fully in control of our thoughts.

On a grander scale, over longer stretches of time, artists learn to live with and exploit this peculiar quality of mind. They assert on the one hand their ascendancy over their materials, techniques, subject matter, and on the other are obliged to accept that their art, to be fully alive, must have a mind of its own. How often, and in how many ways, they tell us that what they do best is the fruit of both hard work and good luck, of the will and the muse, the conscious and the unconscious.

Donna McLean is one of those rare artists whose work directly explores this polarity. Her work inhabits a haunting, contradictory terrain: she is a driven perfectionist in pursuit of a dream world whose justification necessarily lies beyond her reach; her studio is strewn with finely-honed attempts to capture what she believes to be the ‘correct’ quality of near darkness; even as she pursues it, she will only know it when she sees it. When they appear in her landscapes, her figures – solitary rather than lonely – seem to have fantasized their surroundings as much as they have been formed by them. In recent years these environments have included the stark architecture of library, stairwell, underground station, cityscape. Like thoughts, like life itself, these figures grow out darkness, and into darkness they return.

And this darkness, less expressive of depression than of painterly restraint, provides the opportunity for the careful, angled intrusion of a quite possibly hopeful light, a luminosity reflected across the centuries from her beloved Vermeer. Because it is rendered so sparely, the light appears all the more precious and welcome. One is reminded of Portia’s famous exclamation, ‘How far that little candle throws his beams/So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ In all, her paintings, as her admirers have noted in various ways, produce an effect of expansive calm and inwardness, and her latest work proceeds along these lines towards a meticulous subjectivity. These ghostly, disembodied heads are derived from a single subject, and the constant return and reworking suggest a restless quest for an elusive truth about the human face. The high, fine-boned forehead lends the subject a cerebral air. When her gaze is direct, she appears to be looking through rather than at the world; put another way, it is a thought or a feeling she seems to examine rather than an object or a person. When the sensitively realised grey-blue eyes are lowered under heavy lids, the subjectivity is complete.

The term ‘portrait’ is not quite appropriate, for we appear to be contemplating a face as though from the inside. The viewer cannot easily ascribe any particular emotion to it. There are no background hints, no clothing or social context to help us place this woman. When one of the eyes is lost in shadow she is still harder to define. In some versions she is sexless, or childlike, or even ageless, the form of a modern angel. All this, as well as the unearthly pallor suggest an element both ethereal and essential. Another age might have spoken of the soul in connection with these paintings; now we might think of the true or hidden self, artfully revealed, suspended within a private world.

Self-evidently, private worlds have infinite variability. A car journey by night along a lonely country road is a forum for reverie, a common experience easily overlooked or forgotten, and therefore justifying exploration. Because this is Donna McLean, we sense that there will be no other traffic – she is not dealing in social realism – and that the driver is unaccompanied. Enclosed in her cabin, she sees no more than what the main beam solipsistically affords along the line of travel. Again, the light intrudes upon a darkness that is never quite complete. Journeys in art – in fiction and cinema as well as painting – can never voyage far from metaphor. That faint glow in the night sky reflects the possibility of a nearby town, of arrival and encounter, and the end of private dreaming. Such is the delicacy of this sophisticated, prodigiously gifted artist, that it left to us to resolve whether this celestial gleam is an optimistic sign.

Ian McEwan

Copyright 2007
Selected Bibliography

Andrew Lambirth 2003

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.

Andrew Lambirth
October 2003

Richard Rogers 2000

The more you surround light with dark, the brighter it shines

Donna McLean’s painting, powerful and introspective, draws you into a particular world, a world full of contradiction and paradox. A world of light and darkness; of space and claustrophobia; of speed and of stillness. The spectrum of her characteristic palette is richly dark: Ivory black, Vandyke brown, and Paynes grey. And yet her paintings are about light, since, as she points out, the more you surround light with dark, the brighter it shines.

Where are these paintings set? One vaguely recognizes the locations – Notting Hill Tube Station, for instance – but, like all great artists, she takes the familiar, the everyday and then transcends it. She creates her own noirish world of threatening shadows, where space – the space between buildings, within buildings – has no end. She chooses to focus on the places through which one unthinkingly passes, on the way to a different destination: alleyways, foyers, escalators, subways… Take, for example, a particular favourite of mine: the practically deserted underground station, with its dark tracks rushing to an even darker tunnel in the centre of the painting. This picture exemplifies all that I find exciting in McLean’s work. Everything – the lighter platform shrinking into the distance, the barrel roof held up by diminishing arches – plays to the power of the single point perspective, and the eye rushes to the epicentre, the tiny, floodlit figure standing at the end of the platform. The tableau is dynamic, kinetic – and yet eerily still. It is her inspired manipulation of scale which makes this, like all her pictures, so arresting. The station is exaggeratedly cavernous; the figure, in contrast, is tiny, frail and vulnerable. She takes the everyday banal experience and transforms it into a powerful vision, abstracting the humdrum reality and giving it a suspended, brown stillness.

As an architect I look at McLean’s images of matter and space with envy. In a sense, we are working in the same domain. But the Arcadian poem is always more beautiful than the landscape which inspires it. Her art can intensify, pinpoint and concentrate her dreamlike spaces in ways which outstrip the finite reality of the buildings I can design and build.

She is a painter whose work echoes Rembrandt, Vermeer, De Chirico and Balthas – all painters who in their different ways celebrate light and shadow, space and silence, the same forces which give form to McLean’s magnificent paintings. But, unlike her forerunners, she fearlessly concentrates on the container, not the contained; on emptiness and infinity, not objects. She creates something at once harmonious and inevitable, vulnerable and ethereal. Her painting has been informed by her own life, difficult and sometimes painful: and this is what gives her work its potency, its own unique emotional charge. She has been able to capture her experiences and transform them into these powerful and beautiful paintings. She is a serious painter; she is an exceptional painter.

Richard Rogers, 2000

Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition

8 June – 16 August 2015

Private Worlds

14 November – 15 December 2007

19 November - 13 December 2003
22 November - 18 December 2000