The Gift of a Name
With a flourish he names it the living and the dead and another be still. ‘Don’t use capitals unless it’s a place name’, Allan MacDonald tells me. I know he has thought long-and-hard before presenting these titles to me. A word describes but a name empowers. There are countless directional names in the art world: Northern Light, View of the North, Northlands, South from the Drigg, Beast from the East or Northwest. There are lots of ‘darks’ and ‘lights’ and many place names. Nullabor Plain and Wemyss Castle hang in the gallery right now. There are weather names: swirls, storms and wild seas and there are mythical names too. There have been six Yggdrasil’s in the gallery over the years, a few Axis Mundis and only one Cernunnos. Some artists, who focus on one subject, number their work upwards from one, and there are others who don’t wish to enter the naming game, so their work becomes simply ‘landscape’ or ‘dog.’ These paintings need to empower themselves without the gift of a name. But Allan MacDonald is always masterful. He pretends to think up the next title but I’m certain it’s already there.
A few years ago, MacDonald was obsessive about shadows. ‘There’s no light without dark’ he told me, and this showed in his titles as well as his work. In oak withstands: tree of light and shadow (2012) an oak tree stands, belly forward, catching both light and shadows. This tree is ancient, entlike and proud. It is at home in the dapples. Shadowlands, Arkle (2016) shows a copse of dark birches with the mountain glowing behind them. Light and shadow in these paintings is more than a character, it is the whole subject, a dance rather than the dancers, and the painting is a play that tells a story. Naming to MacDonald is as important as signing the painting.
A harder story comes from the sea, and this is when MacDonald’s titles are more urgent: maelstrom (2019,) momentum (2019,) imminent (2019,) on the edge (2016.) Here, the tree’s dance of light and shadow is replaced with a battle between rock and sea. ‘Rock is hard,’ Allan tells me, ‘but ultimately the sea will win.’ This elemental work is theatrical: rock, sea, light and shadow, are players who act out a parable of incomprehensible endless forces. ‘Aye, Allan. Time, eh. It’s pretty big.’ I get a strange look back. This story is best told by Allan.
From here, MacDonald paints a few ‘Stage left’ paintings where, from the left of the canvas, light or the moon enters his dark oils. He jested with me that he owns the moon. Night is a place too few artists enter. We are now at a different place and MacDonald has a new collection of work to be shown in a month’s time.
In the gallery, at its round desk by the woodfire, MacDonald continues to give names for the coming exhibition: river trance, river idyll, déjà vu, rapture, haven. With each name, another painting is empowered by poetry, and by the gift of a name.