Looking at contemporary art is like panning for gold: once in a while, amidst the drift and dribble, you stumble fortuitously on the shiny stuff, on someone like a Katie Paterson or a George Shaw, say.
On someone like Mackie.
Mackie’s subect is “the very average man”, “the frailty and silliness of everything”. There is black humour aplenty: his world is peopled by what look like distinctly shady types but are in fact just men, caught in the act of simply being themselves, ‘blokes‘ ”: the innate slobbishness; the casual aggression; the tribalism; the testosterone-fuelled menace; the unconsidered lusty lip-curl of a lecher. But, as with all work of any worth, it cannot be reduced to simple cartoonish mockery; there is an empathy at play here, a fellow-feeling, an all too honest recognition (in himself?) of the ‘manly’ foibles and ‘frailty’ he so ruthlessly and starkly depicts.
This empathy reveals itself formally.
With a background in illustration and design, it comes as no surprise that Mackie’s working process is painstaking, involving detailed preliminary sketching and 3D modelling before committing oil to canvas. His claim to classical Flemish influence is backed up by his realism, his measured palette, his meticulous attention to detail, his observation, his refusal to idealise or romanticise, his concern with the world as it ‘is’: he is a Bosch, or, perhaps more so, a Pieter Bruegel for our times.
All of which raises the work, as I said, above mere cartoon or caricature. What we are dealing with is not the stereotypical but the archetypal; a huge difference: moralising versus moral. (Easter Island heads, anyone?) Rather than putting on show a gallery of grotesques, Mackie is, perhaps, asking us to look within. And that includes you too, lady. You may not visually present, but you’re there by implication, in every single time you’ve looked at him and thought, “Bloody idiot!”. Men without women revert effortlessly to type.
But what I really like about Mackie is that he loves art, he knows art. The references in his work are myriad, yet completely subsumed and assimilated, made totally his own: the Flemish, yes, but what about surrealists like de Chirico, film noir, Otto Dix (as a very percipient friend, Paul, suggested)? And, of course, with his spot-lighting, his ‘down and dirty’ naturalism, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio? I can’t and won’t speak for the artist, but this is what I see, and I love it.
A final word: Mackie may love art, but the modern art world is, maybe, something else. His take on Champaigne’s Last Supper (1648) : Simon Cowell as Christ, and from left to right, Lucien Freud, Dinos Chapman, Richard Hamilton, Francis Bacon, David Hockey, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Jack Vettriano, Rolf Harris, Banksy, Grayson Perry, and Edouard Paolozzi: the Big Boys, the Money Men. A scathing diatribe against the ‘celebritisation’ of culture? Or just a world-weary acknowlegdement that this is simply how things are?
Vettriano (gah!) appears to come in for some serious flak: see this subversion of (or perverse homage to?) Vettriano’s Billy Boys, itself a ridiculously romanticised, glamourised, even sexualised take on tribal macho posturing:
So there’s Mackie: a man with something to propose and the skill, knowledge and honesty to do so.
I hope you like him as much as I do: he doesn’t give pat answers, he asks questions, and the ambiguities in his work allow us to take from them what we will: recognition, outraged censure, amusement, or, if not quite pity, at least a kind sympathy for these ‘blokes’ who, amidst the modern pressures of ‘political correctness’, fail so epically at being anything other than their ‘unreconstructed’ selves.
In today’s art scene that makes Mackie, it seems to me, a rare ‘beast’ indeed.
Mackie is showing at Hayhill Gallery, 5a Cork Street, London W1S 3NY, until 28 April 2012.