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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Medrie MacPhee
Mira Godard Gallery, Calgary, October 10 - 31 1981

Vanguard, Vol. 11 #1, February 1982.
[ 676 words ]


Illusions of the kind that Medrie MacPhee deals with have to be mysterious in order to work. They arise from the calculated manipulation of features of which one can be sure in order to create a situation of which one cannot be sure at all. And this, the combination of calculation and confusion, of certainty and uncertainty, is both cause and effect of the mystery of the successful illusion. MacPhee exploits this mystery in two quite distinct ways.

Her ostensible subject is what MacPhee calls architectural 'sites.' The sites in this exhibition, of some eighteen works from 1980-81, derive mainly from New York lofts, 'their columns, arches, cavernous spaces and odd juxtapositions of old and new construction.' Memoirs is the largest work on show, but its dimensions, 183 x 137 cm, are representative of the scale to which the small preparatory works are transposed. Six of these, drawings and watercolours, are included here, and from them one can see how MacPhee distills the essence of an architectural encounter. They also enable one to observe the process of illusion-making: the calculation involved in discarding or refining the geometrical elements which constitute these interiors, in deciding where to give volume and perspective and where to efface them, in working out the effects of colour.

The illusions set up by these closed interiors composed of voids and apertures are two-fold. Another way of putting this would be to say that MacPhee's work, neatly and knowingly, straddles the divide between those for whom mystery painting has been anathema for as long as it is proper to remember, because illusionism is wrong, and those for whom imagery, and the emotions it arouses, are legitimate, perhaps even unavoidable, subjects for painting.

According to the first, she plays off the depth of architectural space, as rendered by the illusion of painted perspective, against the flatness of the picture plane. Some of the paintings indeed seem to be didactic exercises in this eternal dichotomy. MacPhee signals loud and clear what she is doing in this respect. In many cases these interiors would not work, there are doors that could not open, corners that could not be turned, hingeless shutters. These are not functioning living spaces; they have only the illusory reality of stage flats, from which one is constantly brought back to the glossy surface of the canvas. Another signal is the quality of the surface itself — paint and wax worked up, smoothed down, burnished to an almost photographic finish. These of course are the contrivances of the optical illusion.

By these same means MacPhee seems also to be saying that there are illusions in life as well as art; she uses them to give mystery to her subject: 'interiors have a strong metaphoric and poetic appeal for me. They feel charged with the people and events that they have contained as well as being structurally suggestive of certain states of mind and feeling,' she has written. By giving an illusory and arbitrary sense of the lives that have been, or might be, lived in them, MacPhee's interior makes an inevitable reference to Surrealism and especially Magritte. Unoccupied, or deserted rooms, redolent with the illusion of occupation or use — this is a subject that has been well exploited from Piranesi to de Chirico and Hopper.

To this well-tried subject MacPhee brings a palette of sombre, close-valued colours, deriving from ochre, vermilion and cobalt. Their density looks like a legacy from earlier work that involved a great deal of overpainting. They are used to define those illusory picture planes, but they are also the colours that create an atmosphere, claustrophobic and expectant, that is part of the mysterious metaphorical nature of these paintings. One must hope that MacPhee, an artist so proficient with illusions, will not allow these undoubtedly attractive paintings to be exploited. They have further to go.


Vanguard, Vol. 11 #1, February 1982.


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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