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MacDonald’s Menagerie

We author places, as much as remember them. Its an idea from the writings of Peter Straub, and considering how often literary references came up in my conversation with Melanie MacDonald (as it did, too, with Clelia Scala), this seems a good “place” to begin to talk about the paintings she has on display at NAC. Her exhibition Florida Noir opened on October 28 and is hopefully still there, as you read this. If not, her site (melaniemacdonald.ca) merits your perusal. She continues to exhibit in Niagara, and beyond. Her recent solo show at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery was excellent. The monumental, yet also very playful paintings filled the gallery and offered multiple points of entry for the viewers; including both her meticulous style and her evocative imagery.
Before entering the Dennis Tourbin space, perhaps you’ve encountered her lichen works downtown, with their obsessive attention to detail, making the potentially banal quite entrancing.

MacDonald’s site offers many examples of her work, as well as concise thoughts on her practice. Her words: “By painting mass-produced, cheapened objects of the not-so-distant past, my work brings to mind the hand or touch of a brush of the original sculptor and painter. By re-framing them as large-scale paintings the viewer is given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with these lost or forgotten domestic objects.”

What is on display at NAC offers a bit of a different narrative, perhaps because its more specific to a place (“…Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste” is a favourite line from American Gods). In conversation, MacDonald cited Douglas Coupland (who sometimes fancies himself an artist, and some fancy as a cultural prognosticator): “Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wished to be found.”

As always with her work, the objects are rendered in a manner that is both precious and empowers them as iconic signifiers: perhaps even harbingers that are more warnings, or more apocalyptic, than you might normally consider a cute little cockatoo or a darling pink flamingo to encapsulate. Gator – Florida Souvenir or Pink Flamingo – Florida Souvenir transcend their knick knack triviality (while in her studio, MacDonald showed me two of the kitschy objects that inspired this work — I disremember if they were salt and pepper shakers or not — but they were both made in Japan, which implied an artisan quality and preciousness in the same way that seeing “Made in China” makes one assume shoddiness, whether fairly or not). The manner in which MacDonald has captured the texture and the shine of the various animals of the “menagerie” — a glistening swan, a pearly pelican, a cockatoo that shines in reds, yellows and porcelain whites — takes the original objects, which she photographs repeatedly, as part of her process, to impressive levels. The “animals” themselves dominate the paintings. They fill the frame, like portraiture. The backgrounds are designed to serve this, in a banal humid light, often derived from “paint by numbers” images and other stereotypical renderings of sunsets that suggest the tourism (like “Snowbirds” fleeing winter) or the utopian dream too often projected onto Florida (the desperate film noir Midnight Cowboy: “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.”). Stephen King’s Duma Key, to return to literary tools to more deeply enjoy Florida Noir, offers both a heaven and a hell in “the Sunshine State.” Pieces like Sea Horse or Dolphin are nostalgic souvenirs, with a childlike preciousness. These were found by MacDonald in various Florida locals, almost like foraging for mementos. MacDonald has talked about future paintings that will show these pieces broken, in shards, and if Florida Noir is a visual essay about place and space, memory and projection, it’s not hard to see what those future pieces are implying, as these objects break and fail (like Florida, like America, perhaps in Mar – A – Lago on a golf course…)

Florida Noir will be in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC (354 St. Paul) until November 10th. Her Lichen paintings are at Garden City Essentials (35 James Street). Check out both spaces in downtown STC.

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Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta, Canadian Art, FUSE, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.