"My father immigrated to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland. He was fifteen years old when they settled in northern Alberta in a place called Clandonald. One of my earliest memories was of him coming home with an armful of birch saplings. They were planted in a line which formed a boundary between our house and the adjacent field. This line of threes became a border to be crossed. " - Patrick Macaulay
The birch back paintings of Patrick Macaulay are a series of works imbued with a rich personal references. At the same time they are abstract paintings commenting on the function and process of abstraction. The paintings undeniably look like birch bark. In the beginning this series of paintings Macaulay originally worked with photographs and samples of tree bark. Later he worked from an acquired sense of the structural logic of the image of birch bark without reference to pictures or samples. At some point for Macaulay, mark-making became an interesting issue in making the paintings. From this arises the very interesting problem of making paintings that self-consciously trace the border of representation of non-representation. A sense of work was found to be a virtue in the painting production. Macaulay remarks that the production of a series of paintings is in some ways akin to the throwing of pottery on a wheel, something that he had done at NSCAD in Halifax. In paint, the laying down of colours, manipulation of paint, the construction of a field intended for a perceptual attention, are among the attendant pleasures for the painter. The painting process as a practice of material work contributes to the creation of the abstraction – the creation of a concrete object with abstract form. The viewer can see and imagine the painter’s work. Finding interest in this process can produce pleasures for the viewer too. The paintings as a series are all part of one thing. Macaulay suggests, “One painting wouldn’t have the same kind of significance”. Why Birch Bark On one hand, choosing birch bark was an avenue of painting the same thing over and over in different ways. It has the ability to change. Macaulay is also wryly commenting on the repetitious character of landscape paintings and systematic abstract paintings, both honoured twentieth century Canadian practices of art making, bringing those practices into convergence and collision. On the other hand, birch bark is a personal reference for Patrick to his father, to cycles of growth and death, and a sign for boundary. One of Patrick’s earliest memories is of his father bringing home a bundle of birch saplings wrapped in newspaper and putting them on the kitchen table. His father planted a row of trees in their yard which grew as Patrick grew. The trees were the boundary of home and defined the out-of-bounds for childhood games. Beyond the row of birch trees were open fields. Some time after Patrick had moved away from home, his father called him to come to help cut the trees down. Patrick has photographs of the day that all the trees were cut down. The birch trees make sense to the artist as a reference to, and as an association with his father who planted them. His father also used to move trees around the property, and as Macaulay has remarked, it was something about defining space, and making boundaries. Boundary as a theme The birch bark paintings comment on boundaries in different ways. The birch bark reference makes the paintings close-up views of landscape. Installed in the gallery, the paintings constitute a forest – reduced, abstracted, framed in rectangles. The paintings define the boundary of the gallery space, both limiting it and opening a pictorial space beyond. Like the line of birch bark trees that Macaulay’s father planted at the edge of their yard, these works (as paintings) delineate the edge of open space, as a gallery, or the edge of property, or a clearing in the woods. The viewer then is present (privileged to find her or himself in a clearing) with (clear) signs of edges and boundaries. The manner in which the birch bark paintings oscillate across the boundary of representational and non-representational painting, alternately being read as birch bark (landscape) and abstract (colour, form, material paint surface) inserts the work in a wry discourse on temporary painting. While to regard Macaulay’s paintings as self-effacing reduplication of birch bark is part of the point, it overlooks the historical terms of a Canadian painter in the 1990’s. Macaulay’s birch bark paintings are related to the history of modern Canadian painting, to traditions of landscape and to traditions of abstraction. If the viewer cites the work of David Milne, or Borduas, or Jack Bush, the relationship is that of historical reference. Macaulay’s work refers to those painters’ as a gesture, like a compass, or perhaps a quote, but not because Macaulay’s paintings work in the same ways or because the intentions in their making are the same. The birch back paintings play with notions of boundaries between abstraction and representation, between memory and present perceptual experience, and between art history and contemporary art practice.
Daniel Sharp, G101 Artistic Director