An Interview with Christian McLeod

In conversation with Martin Mills

Featured in dotdotdot magazine, February 2012

Part of a generation of Toronto painters who grew up in the shadow of the Painters Eleven and the Isaacs Crew, Christian McLeod chides at his identification as a ‘Toronto artist’ while at the same time taking the city and its surroundings as his ostensible subject. He is wary of being identified too closely with any one movement or with Canadian art in general, even though his work owes an obvious debt to figures such as David Milne and Paul Emile Borduas. As a friend and student of Richard Gorman, who was once described as “the quintessential Canadian artist,” McLeod shares his mentor’s interest in the painterly tradition, in capturing the universal in the specific, in the windswept shores of the great lakes and the golden light and explosive foliage of the Canadian autumn, but leavens his bucolic idylls with an equal interest in the urban landscape, built environments, technology and surveillance.

As tempting as it is to pigeonhole McLeod as part of the Canadian art continuum, his own history, which includes decamping for extended periods to Spain, Germany, Belize, and elsewhere, hints at a more global perspective. His cityscapes are as likely to capture London (Further Unmanned Strategies), or Munich (Central Station), as they are to depict Montreal (the St Henri suite) or Halifax, Nova Scotia (Crystal). McLeod’s elusive titles for his nature paintings – Pond, for example, or Abandoned Fields – speak to a generality, while his signature blurry, smudged out style underscores that sense of vertiginous anywhere-ness. This interview took place on a cold, sunny Tuesday afternoon at McLeod’s studio in the centre of Toronto, surrounded by a massive triptych of wall sized white paintings-in-progress.

Mills: What did Richard Gorman bequeath to you in terms of your artistic practice?

McLeod: Well, in a practical sense, I inherited some of his tools. His workbench, his squeegees, his three-quarter inch plywood wall mount – “real straight three quarter inch ply,” he used to call it. Going into Richard’s studio after he was gone, I got a sense of how much more there was to do. There was no finality there. He had a tremendously generous spirit.

Something Richard told me which I’ll always remember was that if you want to be an artist, you’ve got to be ready to be alone. It can be a very isolating lifestyle, a lot of time spent on your own… But he was definitely not an unhappy man; I don’t think he meant it as a negative thing. Richard worked right up until the day he went into hospital, he loved the artist’s life.

MM: In terms of solitude, painting is unique in that it’s an art form that doesn’t need an audience to be ‘performed.’ Art doesn’t come to you; you have to go to it.

CMC: The canvases do need an audience to come to life – they need to be experienced.

MM: But in terms of the creation of the work…

CMC: Yes, the act of painting requires solitude. There are very few people, I think, who I could ignore enough to have them around when I’m working.

MM: Gorman was a very literary fellow, as much influenced by poetry – particularly Rilke’s “Sonnets of Orpheus” – as by other artists. Would you say that your own work is primarily influenced by art history, or does literature, music, film play as much of a role?

CMC: [Michael] Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of a Lion,” that book gave me visions. Not that I’m illustrating it, but those kinds of stories occur to me when I’m painting.

MM: What kind of stories?

CMC: The tension of working on building something monumental, like a bridge. The way an individual can seem so tiny in the context of what they’re creating. The things that came before us, the recent past, the urban landscape we’ve created and we live in. I think that idea of history, like Ondaatje’s story of the building of the Bloor Street viaduct, has a different effect on me than the idea of art history, which is more about the technique, the actual strokes of paint, how it’s layered, the use of oil paint on canvas.

MM: So the subject comes from history, or the present, whereas the style comes from your influences?

CMC: It’s not as simple as that. My pictorial language is informed by the past, but I’m trying to take things to a new place.

MM: You don’t use pencil drawing as a basis for underdrawing.

CMC: Usually I cover the canvas in a thick layer of paint, so that the next particles of pigment float in the oil, and it gets pushed around, it gets dropped in, extracted, the density grows out of liquid paint, over time.

MM: I mention drawing because I think of your paintings as history paintings, more than landscapes. And there’s a sense of drawing in paint, a sense of trying to capture our lives as they rush past us, that a line has to have multiple meanings just to convey where we are now, our lives are so sped up.

CMC: There is a tension in the work. I like to make it an effort to figure out the story. But it takes a lot of patience, a long time to capture that sense of a frozen moment, so I expect my audience to take the time too, to look closely. With a piece like Further Unmanned Strategies, it is a history painting, but the figures are hidden within the abstraction, maybe it’s a sense of the individual lost within the crowd, hidden in the architecture. The population is overpowered by the forces of its own society – the machine they created to keep them safe just makes them more paranoid. We’re all terrified of the unknown, of all the possible terrible things – of being alone, of losing our homes, of the future.

MM: I wanted to talk to you about titles. There seem to be two kinds of titles for your work: the explicit, like River or Ibiza Town, and the more ambiguous ones, which suggest a state of mind, like Abandoned Fields. Does the title come to you while you’re working on a painting or after it’s finished?

CMC: About 90{31416b015cfdf3fdf9593e9f4b8a2e0fde283c41e2abba13456d874c81aaed08} of the time, it’s during the painting. The paintings grow into the title. I try to catch them and write them down on scraps of paper, I’m getting better at keeping them organized.

MM: Your most recent show [at La Parete Gallery in Toronto] was called The New Nature. What is the new nature?

CMC: We are affecting change on nature – you know, GMOs, unlocking the genome, climate change, and so on. But it’s also got a kind of camp, Seventies optimism to it – like a TV telemarketer: “It’s the new nature! It’s the new you!” The whole idea that because it’s new it’s good, blind faith in the future.

MM: That reminds me, bringing it back to the idea of influence, that your work has no Pop influence, and Pop had that whole embrace of newness, of novelty.

CMC: Well, I use oil on canvas, it’s an old method. I got a laugh out of calling a show of oil paintings The New Nature. It’s the dinosaur of mediums! There’s no video, no iPhone app, there’s nothing backlit.

MM: But you think of oil as an effective method of capturing the transformations of contemporary culture…

CMC: Well, not everyone is convinced. They wonder why I’m painting. To me, it’s cyclical. I don’t consciously try to be contemporary, I don’t think of myself as a ‘contemporary artist,’ in quotes. Look at someone like [Frank] Auerbach, he’s not trying to compete, his paintings capture his time, but it just happens to be now. All artists were contemporary at the time they were working, it’s just an accident of history. David Milne, his street scenes, his paintings of his studio, to me they are utterly contemporary.

MM: You unsuccessfully bid on a Milne painting of Ossington Street at an auction a while back, and here we are sitting in your studio on Ossington. This area has changed so much, not just since Milne’s time but even in the last few years since you moved your studio here.

CMC: Before this, I was in a studio I had in the same building as Richard [Gorman]. 1400 square feet, a whole wall of windows, northeast facing light… they’re condos now, like so many studios I’ve had. Noel Harding had his studio there. Daniel Baird was there, too, the art critic. But I like it here on Ossington, surrounded by galleries, my friend Anthony Macri [the photographer] lives just across the street, places like Delux [restaurant], I can’t complain. I keep my door open.