The Finkelstein Files : Sfumato Superbo

What is it that continues to resonate with me some 10 years after first clapping eyes on Alexander McKenzie’s quietly evocative mood-scapes?

Alexander McKenzie in his Cronulla, Sydney-based studio this month preparng for his upcoming exhibition at Martin Browne Contemporary.

Alexander McKenzie in his Cronulla, Sydney-based studio this month preparing for his upcoming exhibition at Martin Browne Contemporary.

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Its fairly true to say that I am a groupie. Hard-core. Let’s rewind a little, to 2007….

At 4.30pm on a weekday afternoon, I hear the squeal of the gallery stock room roll-a-door ride upwards to see the cavernous mouth of the truck as the art carriers expertly transfer the latest offering from a then young Alex McKenzie. It was a wintery Melbourne afternoon, the kind where you want to shut up shop early, dash into the nearest patisserie and fill your tummy with fleeting warmth. I sign the consignment docket and set about unwrapping, propping the large linen canvas against the long wall. As my first week as gallery manager in one of our most imminent’s commercial galleries, I was keen to make a favourable impression. 

Not five minutes had passed, after sending out an email with image attached of our new arrival, when the phone rang insistently – a keen potential buyer requesting I remain open until he could view the painting in the flesh. I agreed, and hurriedly screwed in two d-rings & wired up the work, hanging it in prime position of as much natural light as I could muster given the fading fast day. Jumping up a ladder, I threw some directional light onto the gleaming canvas. Just enough.

Minutes later, a client, who would become a friend strode purposefully through the glass entry and stood still  – staring . The deal was done. Adrenaline pumping, the painting was sold and so was my fate. Over the next 5 years, I was to sell as many as a dozen paintings to an astute collector who could see what I could see.

Alexander Mckenzie’s landscape paintings have been described as “aesthetically reminiscent of 15th century Dutch Masters – with contemporary motifs…reflecting the human journey that transpires time and place” & “cinematic in the same way that the works of painters such as Caspar David Friedrich or Eugene von Gerard speak across the centuries to a contemporary visual imagination.” His work has been part of solo and group exhibitions in Australia, Hong Kong, Scotland, Ireland and the United States and is part of corporate and private collections across the globe.

He is a seven times finalist of the Wynne Prize held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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The son of Scottish migrants, McKenzie knew he would become a painter from the earliest years and had his own purpose-built art studio at home from the age of eleven. “I suppose art was something already in my family. My parents drew and painted. My grandparents met at art college.”

After starting out at City Art Institute, now called (COFA) University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts, he dropped out, citing that he wasn’t interested in exploring lots of other disciplines, he just wanted to get on with painting. Shortly after leaving City Art Institute he won the Brett Whiteley Scholarship to study at the Julian Ashton Art School, graduating in 1994. Between 1995-2002 he studied and traveled throughout – England, Ireland, France, Scotland and Italy.

McKenzie says he didn’t make a conscious decision to be a landscape painter, but his focus on landscape emerged over time. “The first couple of shows I did were all paintings of fish,” he laughs. “Then landscape seemed to creep in over the years and seems to have taken over.” He experimented with abstraction and other styles at art school, but gradually found an approach that was able to express his unique vision. “I have a really good grasp on what I’m doing – a really clear vision of what I want. I can almost walk into a room and see the pictures hanging. But to bring that about in a physical sense is a long and difficult process because of the way I work.”

To the Pleasure Grounds, 2013, oil on linen, 153cm x 197cmTo the Pleasure Grounds, 2013, oil on linen, 153cm x 197cm

Gardener Before Kings, 2013, oil on linen, 137cm x 197cmGardener Before Kings, 2013, oil on linen, 137cm x 197cm

McKenzie uses a traditional painting technique developed by the Dutch. “It’s a very layered process with a very prepared surface. The canvas is sized with rabbit-skin glue, which is applied hot, then there is eggwhite primer and the building up of various layers, at a very large scale. There are a series of glazes. It can take a month to pull a work together.” He chooses this labour-intensive, old-world approach ultimately because of the way it looks. “I love the patina of the painted surface.”

While he has always been very driven to paint and sure about what he wants to paint, McKenzie has struggled at times with his place in the art world. “For a long time, I thought my work was very old-fashioned because it wasn’t cool or in vogue. I always felt slightly outside the box.”

But on reflection he realised he was happy to make a place for himself beyond the vicissitudes of fashion. “Painting itself, by its very nature, is a singular, solitary existence. I never really felt comfortable sharing a studio. For me it was always about retreating into your own journey. To make art that is real and honest, it has to be true to your idea. There are a lot of artists who play the game and change their work to be fashionable. But to me that isn’t getting to the point of why we make art in the first place.”

Luckily, McKenzie is stubborn. He painted for ten or fifteen years while working at menial jobs and sometimes questioned whether it was a good idea. But the desire to make images never deserted him. Then, after being spotted in an art competition in the UK, Rebecca Hossack‘s gallery in London began showing his work, and has represented him for the past eight years. “I went from making $2000 a year to actually being able to live from my work.”

His work has been described as nostalgic or romantic, even allegorical or looking back to the Symbolist movement, but he is uncomfortable with those labels. “In a sense it is true, but it’s not a conscious choice, more a reaction to an overwhelming need, a desire that pushes me to make an image – and that’s what comes pouring out. To me, a style is not something you manufacture, it should just be what you are.” An authentic answer, from an authentic artist.

Alive Among Trees, 2013,  oil on linen 153cm x 197cmAlive Among Trees, 2013, oil on linen 153cm x 197cm

The Sweep, 2013, oil on linen, 122cm x 167cmThe Sweep, 2013, oil on linen, 122cm x 167cm

McKenzie likes to immerse himself in cool landscapes, and travels regularly to northern Europe, Tasmania, Victoria and the South Coast of NSW, but he is not a plein air painter. Verisimilitude or the representation of a specific landscape is not what interests him. “It’s really when I get back into the studio that my recollections are distilled into some kind of image. If I think about it from a magical point of view, I’m summoning those memories in my painting.”

His works conjure moods and even narratives. “The story can change from painting to painting. But I think in a way it is like what is said of novelists, that they are retelling the same story over and over again. And if we think about it deeply we’re probably telling our own story over and over again. Which is possibly all we can do.”

There are no people in McKenzie’s work, but there is often a suggestion of their presence, a trace of humanity. “I suppose what the pictures are about is some sort of struggle with the issues of the spirit, of mortality and direction. I contemplate all of those things, and the landscape is the natural place to contemplate them.”

In a Night Season, 2013, oil on linen, 122cm x 214cmIn a Night Season, 2013, oil on linen, 122cm x 214cm

While his paintings of misty valleys, stark leafless trees and brooding skies can at times seem sombre, McKenzie believes all of his images are optimistic. “If I’m working on an image of rain or a storm, it’s a clearing thing. A change is always positive, a necessary step on a spiritual journey.” Deep in thought, McKenzie explains: “I’m interested in the metaphors associated with shaping and nurturing nature, how we are shaped throughout life to become us.”

His latest show at Martin Browne Contemporary in Sydney is titled The Cairn opening  22nd August unit 15 September, 15 Hampden Street, Paddington.  The online catalogue is available here to view.

Artist Profile Issue 24, available today, contains a lyrical yet gutsy interview with the artist by Owen Craven views the works as deeply personal paintings less about place and more about the artist’s place in the world”.

I always have so much to say about Mr.McKenzie, so much so, that todays post is the first of a two part unveiling.  Big news coming this way – stay tuned.

TFF xx