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Liz Wylie

Landon Mackenzie
Wynick Tuck Gallery, Toronto

C Magazine #31, Fall 1991
[ 959 words ]

Landon Mackenzie has set a particularly tough course for her art. Working within the context and confines of western painting (in her case, acrylic on canvas) she's intent on grappling with social / ideological issues of feminism and the environment, as well as autobiography. Because of these ambitions, the paintings are uneven in quality and effect, with the weaker ones missing the mark, but the best pieces are resolved, provocative visual statements.

An overnight, national success in 1981 with her first paintings, the Lost River series, Mackenzie has since shifted emphasis and style. While retaining some basic characteristics, her work from the later 1980s has been less luscious, less easily likeable, but more engaged in public issues. When the artist moved to Vancouver from Central Canada in 1986, this thrust continued.

Mackenzie's recent series, Canadian Shield and Target (1990), is varied in imagery and appearance, and falls into three basic sub-groups: pictures featuring canoes, those featuring targets and those containing what I call 'cosmic' imagery. All involve themes, ideas and images that are personally important to the artist. The series' title, she explains, is part sincere, part ironic, referring to the actual Canadian Shield but also to its treatment in painting by the Group of Seven et al., both of which she sees as currently under siege environmentally and culturally.

But the concerns of the Canadian Shield and Target series seem even more personal. I sense a desire on the part of the artist to place herself within a context of 'the land' in Canada (both the actual land, and the land as it has been painted) while investigating that 'land' part of herself — where it occupies space and how it informs who she is. I don't think Mackenzie has consciously, deliberately chosen the landscape (and related motifs) as her subject. I am sure she is only too aware of every great-white-north pitfall that lies in her path. Rather, I think this area of exploration concerns her own past, her family and a large part of her identity, which she feels compelled to unravel and pursue.

Of the three groups of paintings in the Canadian Shield and Target series, the target ones seem least successful. They are also the smallest in size, loaded with varying images, including the hard-edge, multi-coloured targets. They offer a lot to decipher and don't come together well as paintings. The target images are double-barrelled. On the one hand, they are both a homage to and comment on the macho-oriented Quebec abstract, hard-edge painting she was confronted with in graduate school in Montreal in the late 1970s (Claude Tousignant, Guido Molinari, Yves Gaucher). But at the same time, they also explore the concept of gender in art, since, says Mackenzie, 'if a woman paints a target, it's automatically read as a vagina.'

In Canadian Shield with Target (with Tousignant), from 1990, and in one of her canoe paintings, the artist reverts to the use of text in her work — something that was a feature of her undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate printmaking work, but that has not yet been incorporated into her painting. In its resurfacing, it seems to be used judiciously and with good effect. In the (with Tousignant) painting, text appears as a fragment of white writing on a blackboard, like lecture notes jotted down for students. Of course, this could allude to any art school blackboard, but calls to my mind the famous 1976 Joseph Beuys lecture blackboard at NSCAD (later held by Garry Kennedy in his office).

Mackenzie's canoe paintings must be close to her heart, since the canoe and canoeing have been central to her life. In Red and White and in Canoe (a monochromatic green picture) the artist seems to be exploring the idea of the canoe as an icon, partly of Native culture, partly of our expropriation of that, and partly of hokey, great-white-north popular culture. But both paintings have a dashed-off quality. Mackenzie's canoe image seems to work best in conjunction with other elements, such as in Prairie / Flood / Island. This large canvas was completed after the artist participated last year in Dave Durant's and Jeff Spalding's Oldman River expedition in Southern Alberta. It is a dreamlike piece, similar in mood to the sequence in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's Kansas farmhouse is swept away by the twister. An island, dock and canoe float beneath surreal washes of yellow — as though in a multi-layered memory or dream. The other effective canoe-related piece, Black Lake, is not really a painting but a mélange / construction of drawn and textual elements. These combine in an evocative, poetic way to form the composite sense of a remembered childhood event. Spare white lines delineate the edge of a boat against a night lake and sky, and somehow a child's sense of the overwhelming mystery and peacefulness of the dark are conveyed.

The last group of paintings (the 'cosmic' ones), all contain female imagery: a female figure marked as though for surgery, borne on the back of a bird in From December 6, 1989, Montreal; a female figure as a celestial constellation map in Southern Cross; and a nude woman logger chopping down trees in Woodchopper and Paradigm.

To some viewers, maybe all this seems a bit too much. To me, it seems a privilege to witness all this material brewing, even though the resulting paintings are uneven and vary widely in emphasis and theme.

Constantly attempting to address issues that are personally important and to increase her range as a painter, Landon Mackenzie has shown herself capable of moving on from the success of the Lost River series, to produce work that continues to fascinate and challenge her audience.


C Magazine #31, Fall 1991


Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.


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