Mackenzie: Mercer Union
by Rick Rhodes
Vanguard, September 1982
Landon Mackenzie's paintings evoke a dream space.
Disorientation is the rule of the game as bodies float,
edges blur forms thin into transparency and colors
wander. The subject matter relates to trips she has
made to the North -- you see bears, evolves, fish,
deer, glaciered landscapes and star streaked night
skies -- but it has been pulled outside in. The compass
doesn't point north anymore; it points to memory, fantasy
and sleep. The series is called Lost River Series and
it's understood that between the river banks, it's
the unconsciousness flowing.
None of this was so apparent when I first saw the series
last fall in Montreal. As I remember the paintings, they
weren't as personal or subjective. They were stiffer,
recalling, in the way the animals were drawn, North American
Indian art. In linking with that art they connected with
its mythic qualities and its huge cosmological scale.
It didn't work. The paintings were sluggish with all
that archetypal weight. The seemed second-hand, with
a taint of exploiting the Indian sources.
But now I want to change my mind. A few of the Montreal
paintings have come to Toronto with newer work and the
newer work throws a back light that makes me think I
was over-reacting to something temporary and inconsequential.
In spirit the work is too European, too materialistic
for the associations with Indian art to count for anything.
Those largely come with the subject matter. Mackenzie
is more concerned with individual perception than with
belief systems. What counts is that her images reduce
to one psyche, one dreamer. The concern of the paintings,
in pragmatic Caucasian fashion, is to realize this as
fully as possible. And the paintings are full. They manifest
a great descriptive capacity. The qualities of the paint
and the way that it is applied
are in perfect harmony with the imagery and the needs
of the theme. I could look again and again at the way
which the close-toned black, broken and maroon colours
of the backgrounds open up to divulge the foreground
images with a particularly charged slowness. The reticence
invokes an intuitive mental state appropriate for looking
at dreamland. You feel easy with the precise kind of
vagueness that the slow-surfacing images describe. The
mood is trance-like until, suddenly, you are jarred by
a vivid splash of colour that provokes a different chain
of reverie. Reverie is probably the wrong word here;
what happens is that the fantasy takes on a physical
immediacy--the feel is more like a brush with reality.
In one painting, for instance, as you move your eyes
left, soft pinkish shapes understood to be reflections
of cloud in water evolve into pink-red fish. These fish
spark a kind of doubling up of awareness of the water.
No longer just a surface reflecting clouds, it takes
on depth. Wetness seems immediate and you feel connected
with the fish almost by a sense of touch.
This tactile empathy interests me most about the work.
Mackenzie goes past the lightness, the wistfulness, the
cerebral quality of art that tries to embody a dream
state. In bits and pieces her work always reaches down
to a sensual plane. You never forget that the dreaming
involves a body. You sense dimly, as dimly as the colours
that hover inside one another, that the work is flushed
with sexual undertones. Nothing is explicit, but the
animals and the landscape seem to play out human intimacies.
In another painting (Where were the titles, Mercer Union?),
fish curl and chase each other up from the bottom of
a river bed to a point where a wolf, drinking, disturbs
the surface of the water with two bright red concentric
ovals. From this feminine image the wolf then evaporates
into a mountain, hair turning into stone, until the scene
ends in an indigo sky turning black. But then at the
top of the painting this continuous rising upward motion
is clipped flat by a sudden new horizon line overhung
with banks of gray wind torn clouds. This final gust
of cold air reflexively heats up the lower part of the
painting, heats up the dream part, giving it the sense
of a fitful sex fantasy. a fantasy not visually descriptive
so much as descriptive of the sensations moving across
the skin, sensations which the dreaming brain turns into
With this kind of richness and range, the work is not
the kind that places easily. If anything, its vitality
makes it seem a little out of step. Recent painting tends
to deal in thinner realities and emotions. It's ironic
and loss-conscious, appropriate to a time of recession
and shrinking expectations. Mackenzie fits in slightly
by raising ecological concerns with her images of ghost
animals reduced to black silhouettes moving like night
shadows. But mostly the work retires from the public
realm. It offers instead a powerfully realized personal
world. The work catches you up not in ideological or
conceptual terms but almost on the level of physiology.
That is its no mean achievement.