first published in Juxtapoz, March 8, 2023
Review: The Comfortable Darkness of Felix Macnee
by Matt Gonzalez
Felix Macnee exhibits eighteen oil paintings at Upper Market Gallery as part of a two weekend pop-up exhibition closing on March 11th, 2023. Active in San Francisco for the past thirty years, Macnee presents a series of recent paintings in his signature otherworldly-ethereal style, primarily comprising landscapes and fragmented figurative works. A surrealist sensibility attends to the paintings which offer the viewer an escape and invitation to wander among dream-like landscapes.
In Kitchen Goddess, Macnee has stretched canvas over a wood panel, allowing him to aggressively work into the surface of the painting. The scratch marks and elimination of a previous painting are readily apparent. The durability of the surface allows for the coexistence of an aggressive treatment of the canvas and the softer quality of a more poetic touch. The painting is as much about the ensuing erosion and subsequent build up, in essence, the creative process. The resulting work conveys sensibilities of an excavation, with a murmur of the prior painting still audible. Macnee places small vignettes, portal-like, within the disparate and seemingly vast landscape elements offering competing visual cues and possibilities.
By engaging a different psychological way of activating the painting surface, Macnee breaks the simpler descriptive or illustrative way a viewer might otherwise see the painting. He allows the gaze to glide over the surface and get into the composition, but also uses fragmentation to produce a more interesting passageway throughout the painting, keeping it from landing in a predictable place. The irrationality that results upsets the linear way a viewer might otherwise engage the experience, thus bringing attention back to the painting process.
Most of the paintings are on stretched linen. Linen has a beautiful, uneven, weave to it rendering a quality which seems less machine-produced. Whatever defects it may have ultimately appear (or persist) on the painting surface. As a result, linen yields a more living surface that does not disappear behind the painting. The disrupted texture keeps the otherwise pristinely rendered painting from being the only thing said, or offered.
A venerable truth of painting concedes that it requires a suspension of disbelief – one is, after all, looking at something rendered on a physical plane, which isn’t in fact the thing depicted. Macnee keeps the viewer exploring various figurative or landscape elements without resorting to what could be called the description of a painting. The viewer’s own narrative is likewise disrupted, making Macnee’s process a reminder that you don’t actually know what is happening.
Macnee typically paints with brushes, but he also utilizes palette knives, rags, squeegees, and improvised tools. He’ll often start with paint applied with a large putty knife, producing a Gerhard Richter-esque blur and soft edges, before rubbing cloth rags into the surface. The erasure or obfuscation resulting from this process gives the surface a feel of having passed through time. The edges of visual elements, be they figurative or otherwise, are pulled down obliterating the tighter rendering, differentiating it from later passes that have the feathery quality of brush work.
Two figurative paintings are highlights of the exhibition: Figure in Black and Red and Figure in Blue and Green. These paintings mark a return to Macnee’s earliest painting practice, where he focused on fragmented figures and rendered landscapes within the figure, treating the painted body itself as another canvas. Painting is often lost in the pretensions of theory. Painters, including Macnee, experiment with different shaped canvases, painting on the edges of a painting, and even exhibiting the reverse of the painting. But at the end of the day, the question is about the resulting aesthetic object. Here, it is whether Macnee has made a good painting. Even something as familiar as a figure can still be new within the paradigm of a succession of compositional disruptions. Macnee makes a compelling painting without needing to prove anything more.
The exhibition has a series of smaller dream landscapes hung in succession. These paintings tend toward a darker sensibility yet remain playful and experimental. There is seemingly less at stake as Macnee attacks a smaller framework, where he can test ideas, creating an intimacy that encourages an acute examination of the pieces. The results are not sketches exactly, but evoke a quality of experimentation without heaviness or preoccupation. Broken wreckage, trees split apart, darkening skies — the elements of these moody landscapes lend a seriousness to them, despite their modest size.
At times it seems as though Macnee creates another world he’s inviting the viewer into, quite successfully — but any decisive narrative is elusive. This is particularly true when the barren landscapes are considered. Yet, some pervasive feeling or poetic direction is suggested within this body of work. Even the figure-less landscapes feel as though they might be populated with figures at any moment, as if we’re gazing at crime scene images or film stills. Movement and breath is captured within these actual motionless moments. Perhaps the viewer’s gaze is enough to activate them, comprising the very moment of awaited time, as these paintings allude to an order embedded in visual space. —Matt Gonzalez