Galleries: The pioneering John Mackechnie is still true to his original vision – HeraldScotland

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Glasgow 14°c
When John Mackechnie studied drawing and painting in the Glasgow School of Art’s (GSA) famous Mackintosh Building in the late 1960s, he found himself out of step with the traditional teaching in place at the school.
Having grown up in post-war Glasgow and, having followed his father, uncles and cousins into the newspaper trade as a 15-year-old copy boy, Mackechnie’s visual reference points were all heavily influenced by pop culture and Americana.
“Even though I studied drawing and painting, I was always more of a pop artist,” says Mackechnie, who studied at GSA from 1967 to 1971 before completing a postgraduate degree in printmaking at the University of Brighton. “As a student,” he continues, “I used found images in my work and then screenprinted over the top of it. I remember doing one with the Queen in it, and another featuring Hubert Humphrey [liberal Vice President of the USA in the late 1960s].
“None of the tutors at GSA knew what to do with me because the at the art school at that time was very traditional. My tutor, the painter Geoff Squire, said to me: “You know John, it’s very interesting what you are doing. I just can’t help you.”
It fell to Mackechnie to help himself and in 50-year-long career, he has ploughed his own furrow by remaining true to his own unique vision of the world around him. All of this while being a major player in the Scottish art scene as director the Glasgow Print Studio (GPS) for almost four decades.
As a solo exhibition of new and existing work at the print studio in Trongate 103 reveals, Mackechnie’s ongoing fascination with pop culture and American life has continued down the years.
Shifting Sands was originally planned to celebrate Mackechnie’s 70th birthday in 2020, but the exhibition was postponed due to the pandemic. Mackechnie has been director of the GPS since 1983, guiding it through thick and thin into the cultural hub it is today. It is, of course, an admin-heavy full-time managerial job guaranteed to stymie the best-laid plans of any artist, and by his own admission, Mackechnie has struggled to make his own work at times.
The exhibition includes screenprint editions he has made over the past ten years alongside a series of new paintings realised during lockdown.
A pioneer of innovative printmaking techniques, Mackechnie’s work displays levels of quality and consistency which could only be achieved by an artist who has dedicated a life to printmaking for over fifty years.
The show is split into two sections; a series of screenprints featuring Scottish waters, skyscraper reflections and a suite of paintings of urban scenes from American life.
Lockdown provided the perfect excuse for Mackechnie to make work untrammelled by his day job. Having already sifted through hundreds of old photographs taken during trips made to the USA over the years, he had ready-to-use scans of negatives which provided the source material for a series of small acrylic paintings which he made at home.
“Lockdown gave me a chance to set up a temporary studio in my front room at my dining table,” he explains. “It gave me something to do which was completely absorbing.”
The people-less paintings – acrylic on linen – all feature classic cars – some in a parlous state yet still kinda sexy despite the rust creeping into the picture at various junctures. The work is all framed but unglazed. If ever work invited the viewer to touch them, it’s these images of late 20th century American life. Smooth and glowing with saturated colour, they hint at a country, which is multi-layered yet all about the highways and byways. Who and where are the drivers, you wonder as you peruse the walls, moving between the streets of Nevada and Tahoe, New York and Miami. Who dumped that truck in New England?
I found myself stroking some of them (it’s OK no-one was looking) and wondering how the heck Mackechnie had arrived at this oh-so-smooth endpoint.
Happily, Mackechnie is able to help in this regard. He painted the scene, he tells me, before sanding it down and overprinting with screenprint.
His Americana series is culled from a few different trips made to the US over the years, starting in 1982. “I got a grant to travel to the States and take photographs,” he recalls. “I had always been interested in crime fiction, particularly Damon Runyon and when I first got to the USA, what got to me was the urban landscapes with cars and tall buildings.”
Time has smoothed the edges of memory for Mackechnie and it’s as if he has transferred that feeling onto the canvas; a tricky feat to pull off but one handled with aplomb.
In his beautiful glazed screenprints of water, you also find yourself immersed in the detail; hypnotised by the waves and the shimmering play of light. Mackechnie starts with a photograph and after a rigorous editing process, an image is selected. It is then developed in Photoshop, editing out extraneous detail, adding and removing colour, cropping the image until he eventually settles on an image to translate into a screenprint. Occasionally, he combines two images in one.
Over several weeks, as many as 30 layers are added. It is a game of chance, as any printmaker knows.
As well as some of his more familiar screenprints of water and tall buildings, Mackechnie has added screenprints made in 2018 to this show in the shape of four Glasgow-inspired prints; Broomielaw, Stockwell Bridge, Carrick Quay and River City. There is a shimmering abstract dreich beauty in these works. We see light, colours and architectural forms reflected in the water and we can make our own way.
Artist Adrian Wiszniewski, a regular at GPS, has contributed to the exhibition notes for Shifting Sands and his words on Mackechnie’s work struck a chord as I sat reading them in the gallery.
“It is very rare for an artist to find his vision, subject matter and mode of expression/communication so early on in his career,” Wiszniewski notes. “And, having done so to stick to the straight and narrow – to avoid the allure of passing fashionable trends and yet learn from them.
“To remain open minded, broad minded and totally respectful of all other artists whose vision, subject matter and mode of expression/communication differ from his own. All these things make John’s work as interesting and refreshing now as it was when he got into his stride some fifty years ago.”
Ain’t that the truth?
John Mackechnie: Shifting Sands, Glasgow Print Studio, Trongate 103, Glasgow G1 5HD, 0141 552 0704, www.glasgowprintstudio.co.uk, Tuesday – Saturday 10.30am – 5.30pm. Until November 20. Free.
Critic’s Choice
Rozelle House in Ayr is the latest public gallery to mark the centenary of the birth of acclaimed Anglo-Scottish painter, Joan Eardley.
Joan Eardley: A Painter’s Life, with Photographs by Audrey Walker, brings Dumfries and Galloway Council’s outstanding collection of Eardley and Walker’s photographs of Eardley at work and play to South Ayrshire.
The display includes paintings, pastels and sketches by Eardley alongside Walker’s intimate black and white photographs.
The two women first met through a mutual friend in 1952 in Glasgow, where both were living at the time. Initially, they bonded over their shared love of music but soon they became very close. Walker, who was 11 years older than Eardley, was a talented violinist and photographer, while Eardley came from a musical family.
Eardley, who had an English father and a Scottish mother, was born in Sussex on May 18 1921. She moved to Glasgow following the outbreak of world war two with her mother and sister and attended the Glasgow School of Art, where she was a star pupil.
Eardley’s portrayal of the streets and children of Glasgow first brought her work to public attention in the 1950s, but it was her fascination with the tiny fishing village of Catterline south of Stonehaven, and its surrounding landscape which brought her both creative frustration and artistic fulfilment in equal measure. She was nominated to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1955 and made a full member in 1963, just months before she died at the age of 42.
Walker, a sheriff’s wife, had a holiday cottage in the Ettrick Valley in the Scottish Borders and Eardley often came to stay with the family. The exhibition features evocative images of Eardley at work in the Walkers’ home and the area surrounding it, as well as in her studio in Townhead, Glasgow, and at Catterline.
The exhibition also includes two short films featuring the artist at work in her Glasgow studio and interviews with her biographer and Catterline neighbours.
Joan Eardley: A Painter’s Life, with Photographs by Audrey Walker, Rozelle House Museum and Galleries, Rozelle Park, Monument Road, Ayr KA7 4NQ, 01292 445447, https://joaneardley.com/project/rozelle-house-museum-and-galleries, Monday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm, Sunday, 12pm, until February 16, 2022. Free.
Don’t Miss
Following an open call to members of Visual Arts Scotland (VAS), Lindsay Bennett and Clare Mackie of Tayport’s Tatha Gallery got together with VAS President Sarah Calmus and board members to select work for SURGE.
The resulting exhibition features a wide array of art forms across the wide spectrum of art and craft-based disciplines which VAS has traditionally championed.
SURGE – VAS Members’ Exhibition, Tatha Gallery, 1 High Street, Newport-on-Tay, Fife, DD6 8AB, 01382 690800, https://www.tathagallery.com/exhibitions/surge, Wednesday to Saturday, 10:30am – 4pm or by appointment. Until November 6. Free.
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