Landon MacKenzie

Landon Mackenzie’s “Nervous Centre” is a significant survey exhibition of works from the past 20 years by the Vancouver-based artist. The largest solo show of Mackenzie’s work to date, the exhibition provides an important overview of one of Canada’s influential painters. The show was organized by the Esker Foundation, a new contemporary art space in Calgary and the initiative of philanthropists Jim and Susan Hill. The Esker has claimed it will be a cultural platform for innovative and exceptional contemporary art exhibitions, so it is no wonder that many have been waiting with anticipation to see how its program would unfold in its first year.

It is within this context that Landon Mackenzie’s exhibition makes its entrance, and her paintings acquit themselves well. Buzzing with energy these large, bold, abstract canvases create multiple points of entry, drawing the viewer in and then through a range of references. Circle of Willis, 2006, is an MRI picture of the brain and an iconography of film strips, ladders, pixels, lines, nets and nodes that invite contemplation of the data and experiences we draw on from the world around us daily. Mackenzie is well known for her technique of mapping human experience, giving form to physical and psychological spaces through a layering of references and challenging play with visual representation.

“Landon Mackenzie: Nervous Centre,” installation view, courtesy the Esker Foundation, Calgary. Photograph: Christian Grandjean

Introducing you to Mackenzie’s earlier works are four paintings begun in 1993 and on loan from the Vancouver Art Gallery, which examine the artist’s series of the Canadian North and West. These works recall the historic geographical networks carved out by the European colonialists’ East-West expansion in Canada, which continue to shape geopolitics today. Mackenzie lays out territories, grids and text, using a painting-over technique that obscures and then raises details again, emphasizing the concealing and revealing of history. References in the paintings, from potash to the fur trade, surface periodically revealing the political and social processes behind official maps and histories. While these historic ellipses are never made clearly visible, Mackenzie’s paintings of regions present, for example, Saskatchewan’s geography as a cultural memory in tension with its national narrative.

These earlier works lead to a larger display of Mackenzie’s more recent paintings which continue to explore the space between abstraction and representation. Point of Entry (Ice Track), 2008-09, includes a vortex of spots that elicits the all too familiar feeling of driving through a whiteout on the prairies. At the same time a blue orb peaks through the vortex’s centre, turning this whiteout into the melting of the Arctic, and bringing together in one painting multiple moments in time. Similarly engulfing is the work Night Sky and Blue Moon, 2009, which creates the illusion of being enveloped by the stars on a very clear night. Upon closer inspection the painting is, as the artist admits, “quite corny,” the canvas covered in playful splatters of paint that are not at all determined by astronomy. This, however, is the engaging quality of Mackenzie’s work; while referring to the prairie sky and blackouts, her pieces also challenge the formal qualities and processes of painting, creating intuitive screens that engage thought and feeling.

Wild Red, 2008, turns the National Gallery of Canada’s historic Voice of Fire, 1967, by Barnett Newman on its head. Mackenzie’s version discards the masculine and formal aspects of Newman’s iconic piece, this time eliciting representations of river flows, spills, pours and the woman’s body through menstruation. The work can in fact be hung either vertically or horizontally, playing a little with the rigidity of Newman’s abstract painting. It is with this humour that Signal (Birthday Party), 2010-11 is also approached, a vibrant vortex pulling in hundreds of bubbles and dots, calling up ovulation and challenging male-centered representations of conception. A dark blue peeks out from the organizing background structures of nets, revealing Mackenzie’s consideration of mapping and the larger cosmos.

Landon Mackenzie, Signal (Birthday Party), 2010–11, synthetic polymer on linen, 220 x 300 cm. Courtesy the artist, Art 45, Montreal, and Esker Foundation, Calgary

Interested in patterned memory and chaos, Mackenzie describes her painting process as abstract, and even a form of her own nervous system. Pulling from her continued research, she intuitively uses source material and integrates it into the layers of her paintings. Although the works are entirely abstract, they are representative phenomena of a way we are living in the world today. The inclusion of Mackenzie’s rarely seen works on paper are in fact the most revealing aspect of the exhibition. Each was produced while Mackenzie was travelling and working in Berlin and Paris and is responsive to the particular experiences of these places. Although complete works in themselves, aspects of these smaller studies are found in the larger paintings. In the Paris series we see its radial subway map and for Berlin, the grey winter and endless scaffolding, which are reused in her larger works.

The Esker has also included a series of unique soundscapes produced for film by the sound composer Dennis Burke, in response to Mackenzie’s practice. Paired with works such as Neurocity (Aqua Blue), 2012, these audio tracks engage the works as movie screens, and you can imagine certain parts of the paintings lighting up and moving. Although an interesting collaboration, I am not sure that the inclusion of these tracks does more than provide another space of experience. What is a more essential component to the exhibition is an essay by Dr. Glen Lowry included in the beautiful 87-page accompanying catalogue. In his essay “Nervous Centres: Landon Mackenzie’s Paintings and Drawings, 1993-2012,” Lowry provides an important historical survey of the artist’s practice to date, and includes a revealing analysis of her works. It is this tracing out of Mackenzie’s technique and influential themes that makes “Nervous Centre” a crucial look at painting in Canada.

“Landon Mackenzie: Nervous Centre” was exhibited at the Esker Foundation, Calgary, from September 7, 2012 to January 5, 2013.