Jess MacNeil

‘Jess MacNeil: The Shape of Between’, Gallery Barry Keldoulis, 2006

There is a painting at London’s National Gallery depicting the execution of the Emperor of Mexico by firing squad. Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867) is a strange painting, which has been cut into pieces and reconstructed onto a stretcher emulating the original scale of the work, now showing only partial elements of the scene. As a result, the soldiers’ cocked rifles are aimed at an area of raw blank canvas, and all that remains visible of Maximilian is a hand, held or restrained by one of the soldiers. The reasons for its destruction are a mystery. Be they political or aesthetic censorship, or physical disintegration, the result is an intriguing tableaux which both communicates and obscures a moment in time. This deconstructed work offers an accidental critique on the effects of history, politics and memory and as such, has always seemed a contemporary vista despite its historical content, as viewers instinctively and repeatedly piece together their own version of the obstructed scene, and contemplate the reasons for its violent journey to now.

MacNeil’s practice treats the pictorial plain in a similar way, allowing absence to play an active role in the interpretation of her subject matter and medium. Her paintings are executed from personal photographs, rearticulated in a manner which lays the process of painting bare. Pencil plans are exposed, and areas are left untended, fragmenting the completed moment captured by a photograph. Figurative elements orchestrate these works; we are drawn towards the girl lost in thought, the arc of a telegraph cable or the ramshackle shape of foreign villages. However these interludes are never concrete, details continuously and abruptly fall away. In their place, abstract colour fields or raw canvas compete with the representation, as the ground emerges, destabilising the pictorial subject. As a result, MacNeil’s structures become fluid and shifting, disallowing our inclination to consume a scene as a whole, and mirroring the fragmented process of remembrance and understanding. Questioning the authority of the photographic image as a unit of truth and permanence, MacNeil’s paintings show a set of personal signifiers which seem to have undergone the same ravages faced by all technology; subjectivity, deterioration, obsolescence and slippage. MacNeil explicitly aligns the medium of paint with the discourse of photography and film; articulating both her canvases and videos as time-based practices, equally as susceptible to flux and permutation.

Having conducted a sustained investigation into the juncture between painting and photography, MacNeil’s recent forays into video are an engaging progression from the tensions she explores on canvas. For the Opera House Steps series she began with a set of photographic studies of people against the backdrop of the building’s steps. Isolated by white paint on the photographic surface, these figures are traced and extended in a linear way, negative space left unpainted in their wake. As if mapping an imagined path, the unpainted area marks multiple individual journeys, creating an aesthetic akin to the matrixes of the video editing suite. Humans become non-sequential particles, points for mapping the fluctuations of public space. In the video works from the same series, the human element has become superfluous, as MacNeil painstakingly removes the physical forms traversing the steps. All that remain are ghost-like shadows thrown by an anonymous cast of passers by.

What is striking about this transitional work is the resemblance of the shadows to brushstrokes. They trace the hard edges of the urban step structure, which fills the frame. The strata and shadows also bear a resemblance to an ant farm, aligning human activity with the contained universe of an ant colony. This work continues her painterly trajectory of deconstructing visual codes, and what we see is an engaging observation of the fluidity of human movement and the formalising of human behaviour. The two versions of this work were taken at opposing seasons and differences in light quality, shadow length and the pace of summer and winter walkers create contrasting environments in these works. On some level this work makes visible ideas surrounding chaos and complexity theories as the unpredictable nature of individual destinies are tracked. It also aligns contemporary digital models with the chrono-photographic motion studies of the late nineteenth century, as the horizontal planes break the residue of movement into discontinuous, random sections.

The Shape of Between continues MacNeil’s enigmatic extension of the painting tradition and the convergence of civilisation with the possibilities of the digital arena. Comprised of one hundred seconds of footage extended to almost thirteen minutes, the work shows four rowing boats on the Ganges River captured on a recent residency to Varanasi in India, highlighting the nuances of the passage of time. Presented without the rigidity of the single-point perspective in the Opera House Steps series, there is no horizon or shoreline with which to orient oneself, which relates to the Eastern artistic tradition of multiple-point perspective. The camera is trained on one boat at a time, surveying its path through the serene uninterrupted surface of the Ganges, a river rich with religious and cultural significance in India. This simple intervention quietly alters both the choreography and atmosphere of the looped scene each time the camera readjusts to the next boat. The boats therefore transcend any initial associations we may have attributed them and become slow animated ‘pixels’ which respond to the camera’s treatment by appearing to skim the water’s surface at differing rates according to the lens’ path. Accompanying this looped study is a sparse electronic sound composition which continues the idea of deferred time through cyclical rattles and chimes. As the boat’s oars rotate in the still treacle of the editing suite, we are led on a meditative and mediated study of temporal motion.

Like the many imagined faces of Maximilian, these works operate by momentarily suspending our conventional perception. By questioning these small but inherited ‘truths’, the snapshot, the completed canvas, the act of walking a metropolis or traversing a river, MacNeil draws our awareness to the permeability of time and the forgotten corners of our assumed reality, refocusing us quite literally on the ‘shape of between’.

Clare Lewis, 2006