Landscape as Language

Landscapes dissolve into data packets, language turns into strings before collapsing into longships that sail to Egypt and emerge reborn as shimmering gold and prussian blue musical scores.

He consumes the world through whatever is at hand – it could be art, music, wine, the Internet; Rimbaud’s ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ leads to a sort of hyper-realism, the coalescing of theory and reality. He pauses only to uncover invisible places, the staccato electric impulses of (post) modern life, captured in daubed and slashed paint on canvas.

Three elements intersect; they are – in no particular order – art, music, and language, but he does not distract himself with theory, only with life itself. We see depicted the effects of time and place on our collective mental landscape, drawn down into something resembling a coherent statement, yet never quite within the grasp of language

There is always a disruption, another way of reading. Hence, the plump red lumps of Particles summon not only the peninsulas of Lake Huron, but the experimental paintings of Paul-Emilé Borduas and the Quebec school.

The Spanish paintings evoke the Iberian space – they come from staring directly into the sun – are they thousands of years of history pulled onto the canvas, morphing between natural landscapes and imagined digital scapes – a subtle reference to the digital photographs on which some pieces are based? He is as likely to be referring to Altimira. The paintings interact with the light, their chunky surfaces shifting through the day as shadows move across them, changing their direction and colours and teasing out new associations. One must live with them a while before they reveal themselves, the layers coalesce over time but they never stop moving.

Unlike some artists of his generation, McLeod has never been overly concerned with breaking completely from the past. His choice of medium ties him to an ancient tradition, not just oil painting itself but the act of inscription, which he sees as dating back to at least the cave painters. He sees no inherent virtue in the shock of the new, except as it relates to the art he admires. This would include the brushwork of De Kooning and Bacon, the discipline of Richter, the ballsiness of Banksy, as well as a pantheon of major and Canadian artists ranging as widely as Painters 11, Richard Gorman and the Isaac’s Crew, the automatisme of Bourdas, and Riopelle, the vivid colours of Norval Morrisseau, and formal intensity of the Cape Dorset printmakers. Of these, the allusion to Richter is particularly apt – in many ways, McLeod’s recent formal experiments seem like nothing so much as a fusion of the photo effects of Richter’s early ‘capitalist realism’ with his chromatic abstractions and squeegee/palette knife experiments dating from the 70’s onwards. Works like ‘St. Henri’ retain that photo-based representation that mirrors Richter’s ‘Atlas’ and related works, while the reduced palette and blocky imagery suggest Richter’s colour charts such as ‘192 colours.’

McLeod’s knowledge of art history informs much of his process, but add to this the anonymous graffiti artists of the downtown neighbourhood he lives in, and stir to mix.

He soaks up these influences on his brush and palette knife, their hands guiding his as he marks the outlines of the territories we now occupy – city spaces crammed with cars and pedestrians, dizzying views from atop tall buildings, rave kids huddled in the corner of a vacant warehouse, glimpses from cars speeding through landscapes blurred by speed. Everything is moving, all the time. Often building on a shaky grid, McLeod combines the formal structure of a certain type of abstraction (Klee, Mondrian, Hundertwasser) with the lyricism of Expressionism, but never veers completely into abstract expressionism – one viewer called it abstract realism, but I’d be more inclined toward realist abstraction.

Much of McLeod’s work is aggressively urban, with its cityscapes shuddering under the weight of the traffic and the sky looking on indifferently. But there is another strain of bucolic imagery he often explores, not quite pastoral but concerned with the intervention of humans in the landscape. His own experiences living on a farm heighten his awareness of the fragility of the land, and the illusory aspect of what we call ‘nature’ – we are at the point in history where ‘nature’ is merely what has been left untouched, a deliberate choice by governments and developers, far from the spontaneous and self-realised environments of even Thoreau’s time. The forest has become a woodlot. In his mind’s eye, McLeod delves deep into the past to imagine what was there before all that took place, then maps out a history of the interventions, the ploughed fields, the pavements that now occupy these places. To him, there is no point arguing – it is simply the way things are – but certain paintings operate as a sort of memorial for what once was, or could have been.

Even his urban landscapes often dissolve into watery, reflective spaces – estuaries and harbours – where the city looks inconsequential and transitory, or they recede into enormous mountains in the distance, a reminder that we are not in fact the masters of reality we so often pretend to be, that there are some things that will always be bigger than us.

As he works, the music plays. It could be experimental sound collages, reggae, techno, house, rock, classical, anything to keep the energy as intense as possible. The finished work contains the music, accumulated as deposits of painterly ideas, textures, sediment.

Some paintings overtly reference this – think DJ Astroturf, the disc jockey melting into the surfaces which contain his music. Others are more subtle, the Ibiza paintings coyly suggesting the hedonism of the place with its all night clubs and decadent lifestyle, but shown instead as a shimmering form that might be a city, or is it bodies dancing on a hillside to the sounds of a late-night DJ? Either way, the rhythms are infused into the paint. The clanging dub of Lee Perry and King Tubby, the space operas of The Flaming Lips, the abstract stories of Robyn Hitchcock inform these paintings and instill them with that sense of the moment that music so effortlessly provides. And as music transforms itself, so too do the paintings – forms dissolve and recompile themselves, these sounds are transmitted through long strings of meaningless data, only to be recompiled into a recognizable system through analog conversion/strokes on a canvas, but the sound then still elusive and slippery, as all good music is – the notes disappear one after the other: “No sound fears the silence that engulfs it.” (John Cage) Digital signal becomes analogue through the air, then hits the ear and becomes digital again – information becomes analogue through the artist’s invention, then hits the viewer’s eye and becomes digital again. The artist as recorder.

Then there is language, whether the epic poetry of the past or the illegible graffiti tags of urban walls. McLeod is ambivalent about it, he defers judgment on the capabilities of language as a vehicle to express sensation – his words tend to dissolve into hieroglyphs and pictograms, and from there decay further into background chatter, cast-off ideas jettisoned on the road to progress, that most deadly of notions. He shares his generation’s distrust of the floating ticker at the bottom of the newscast, preferring instead to invoke a hyperlink-like connectivity between signs. He pulls it all together, creating strings of meaning that resist easy translation into verbal concepts. Even the connections themselves are disavowed, ascribed to the beholder’s interpretative tendencies. Thus we see the strange, boat-like forms that populate his language series – are they the ghosts of ancient methods of communication, or are they the transatlantic cables that enable the world wide web, or the data packets that travel through the cables? He doesn’t need to answer that, since the answer is yes and no, simultaneously. In the end, it is his task to embrace uncertainty, to pursue the uncatchable, to feel everything, an unlimited dream. And so his surfaces become immense, swollen with the signs and sounds of our modern world. His scale expands to match his vision, encompassing the reflected glow of the city in the water, the human in the landscape, hope in a time of catastrophe.

Toronto – Paris 2006

Martin Mills is a Toronto-based writer, entrepreneur, and computer scientist.