The Pleasure Principle

Christian McLeod’s Elevations series

Martin Mills

May 2013

Christian McLeod’s only written comment on the pieces collected for his Elevations exhibition, painted in the first part of 2013 and shown at La Parete Gallery in Toronto this May, was simply that ‘it’s not about destruction, it’s about realizing beauty.’ There is exuberance, even optimism, a break from the anxious experimentation of the recent past, the culmination of a direction hinted at in the paintings shown at the Migration of Colour exhibition at the end of 2012. Colour itself comes to the fore, along with something I refer to as, for want of better term, “nature,” both unimpeded by a quest for meaning or prophecies of impending catastrophe. McLeod’s homemade airplane has lost its 3G connection to Google Maps and crash-landed on the side of a distant mountain, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all. Time has slowed down, his cellphone has no signal out here and anyway he’s not in any hurry to be found; he might as well throw it away and sit in the sun enjoying the view.

The paintings take on McLeod’s customary elevated point of view, we are up high looking down. In previous work, this view was sometimes laden with doom – for example, the black helicopters of Further Unmanned Strategies (2008), the buzzing drones of Unmanned (2006), the ominously titled Control Room (2010) and Passing Over (2010), with its biblical allusion to the angel of death. Technophilia rubbed up uneasily against paranoia and claustrophobia in these new-style history paintings. In the Elevations series, though, we have left the electronic surveillance devices, the 24-hour news cycle and the cities behind; we are out in nature, looking down into sunlit spaces. The vertiginous rush of standing atop a tall building, the ghostly flicker of a drone’s camera feed is supplanted by the vast, still panoramas of the mountain.

Shapes assemble, but resist easy identification; instead, colour signifies only itself and forms remain fleeting, hinted at but never outlined. The Reverse Arc of the Sun (2013) is traced on water, and is elusive for it: the sun might be a faint red smudge on a pool of cerulean blue, its brilliance scraped away to leave only a suggestion edged by flecks of white light, or it might be hiding in the top right corner as a painterly trope, a vestige of orange under-painting hinting at directions not taken, reversals like the one alluded to in the title. Its sister painting Rain (2013) showcases McLeod’s skills as a colorist. Utilizing an almost-identical palette to the Sun painting, Rain‘s mood is exactly the opposite; as the name implies, it captures a wet and slippery day. The subtle shift from vermillion in one work to crimson and purple in the other evokes the shift in light through the passage of a single day, through seasons and weather systems.

The series has several paired paintings; themes explored twice, each approach taking a different direction. Two kaleidoscopic studies in white, blue and green, Obscured and In Your Dreams (both 2013), provide an object lesson in similarity and contrast. The diamond-shaped Obscured cascades colour against a choppy diagonal grid; the overall effect is reminiscent of a waterfall in a forest clearing, dappled light and movement achieved through the bold slashes of white and Prussian blue dragged through the centre of the canvas. In Your Dreams, conventionally rectangular and covered by diagonal marks, uses the same palette to altogether different effect – the painting is crystalline, fractal in the self-similar way that it appears to repeat itself in ever tighter patterns, each segment of the painting a scaled-down version of the whole. According to McLeod, it is a depiction of that point in falling asleep when one’s mind starts to chase the abstract forms of neural pathways, or whatever it is we are looking at when we begin to dream. We gaze out at nature, but she is within us too.

Iris (2013) is a seeming pun on the shared names for the flower and the coloured part of the eyeball. The painting’s tentative vertical movement is reminiscent of the flower’s delicacy and height, captured in a whirl of painterly gestures and split-second decisions, but the purple-blue hue of the flower plays second fiddle to a frenetic impasto of orange and yellow. I have elsewhere compared McLeod’s philosophy of painting to that of a gardener, a sentiment this work’s title brings into focus. But it is as much a painting about painting, that is, about the optical meaning of iris, as it is about nature. As he hints with his quip that ‘It’s not about destruction,’ the appearance of removal, of destruction, in McLeod’s paintings is in fact an artifice – this painting, like the others, is meticulously constructed, an accumulation of faux-ruins that appears to be reductive but is in fact opulent and maximalist. Like a deliberately overgrown garden, which aspires to look like nature itself and through its creator’s intention becomes somehow more Platonically ‘natural’ than the unruly mess that our carefully managed ‘real’ wilderness presents, Iris pursues the appearance of accident and omission within a tightly controlled scheme.

The horizon line, an enduring signifier of representation and landscape in McLeod’s earlier work, makes only fleeting cameos in the new series. Paintings such as Emerging (2013) hint at perspective, but are untethered “ up and down are no longer apparent. The tension in Emerging comes from the contrast between the chthonic red of the earth and the ice blue flecks that may be rivulets rising from within it or clouds floating above it, an ambiguity explored in reverse in the monumental The Forest and the Trees (2013), where red blobs suggest both clouds and islands, its swirling blues unwilling to identify themselves as sky or water. In both of these paintings, we may be high up in the stratosphere, or down on our hands and knees examining a small patch of earth.

The loveliest work in the series is Ahead of the Race (2013), white accumulations floating on the palest of blue grounds, an effect reminiscent of Twombly at his most lyrical, or a more subdued Joan Mitchell. Tiny coloured patches float on it like boats on the water, it is – like all the paintings in the series – a pure abstraction, yet our minds cannot help but sketch the outlines of a story. The billowing lines of white suggest waves, but here as elsewhere, they exist for their own sake as pure colour and visual rhythm. Again, we encounter a maximalist sensibility expressing itself, this time in the language of minimalism, and the less-ness is somehow gigantic, a sun-dazzled ocean, a diary of clouds.

Author’s Notes

1. Christian McLeod: Migration of Colour exhibition, Page and Strange Gallery, Halifax NS 2012

2. Christian McLeod: The New Nature exhibition, La Parete Gallery, Toronto ON 2012

3. Further Unmanned Strategies exhibition, Craig Scott Gallery, Toronto ON 2008

4. Unmanned was shown as part of the Ascending Language

exhibition, Craig Scott Gallery, Toronto ON 2006

5. Control Room and Passing Over were shown as part of the

Passing Over exhibition, Page and Strange Gallery, Halifax NS 2010

6. A Place Called Home, my exhibition essay for the Passing Over