Steven MacIver: Out of Orkney at Dillon Gallery
June 15 to August 12, 2016
487 West 22nd Street (between 9th and 10th avenues)
New York, 212 727 8585
Memory rarely resolves itself with the acuity we might wish for. Our past can never neatly unwind and allow us to recall with precision the where, when, and why of things long gone. It is, as William Faulkner famously noted, not even past, but rather an ever-evolving accumulation that grows, both foreshadowing and changing the present. In this way, the act of remembering is more piecemeal, the skeins never quite unfurling gracefully, but growing and evolving, the story changing each time we stop and pause to recollect.
In the work of the Scottish-born painter Steven MacIver, the presence of the past is acknowledged and questioned, often drawing on both the familiar and hazier areas of memory to explore how these inflections continue to inform and alter the present. With a new work on view in the compact space of Dillon Gallery, MacIver employs the physical geography and his own childhood memories of his native Orkney, to produce a series of complexly realized drawings. MacIver began with studies of the island’s topography, gradually incorporating the forms of World War II lookout posts, which dot the coast of the United Kingdom. Like the hard-edged geometric paintings of Frank Stella, these works create space out of surface; paint and copper leaf is surgically applied to birch panels, shapes forming their own echo, patterns knitting together and forming the compositions.
In Aspect B (all works 2016), the utilitarian form of the lookout post never entirely emerges from the flawless perspectival space rendered in ethereal white against a moiré of birch. MacIver played in and around these posts as a child, and depicted here, the spaces are partial, skeletal, like the memory of a dream. A pair of panels, Sentinel 1 and Sentinel 2, at first appear as complementary positive and negative variations of each other, with gold lines intersecting one another at acute angles, but on closer inspection, the patterns formed are themselves subtle inversions, their differences yielding a larger harmony. Previously, MacIver has employed similar radiating forms, frequently using geography as a springboard, allowing patterns to emerge from nature through the act of drawing.
This transition, from the three-dimensional spaces of geography to the flat plane of the drawing, is subtle, and upon first glance, one might be inclined to place this work alongside mid-century breezy geometric abstraction, such as the prints of Anni Albers or the films of Len Lye. MacIver’s works share the tensions, the agile tactility that is latent in much of the high-Modernist output, the anxieties that artists faced in a century that constantly riled and upturned precedent. Apprehensiveness runs through MacIver’s work, and while there is an undeniable Minimalist repetition present, a greater debt could be paid to Robert Smithson and his Gordian non-sites in MacIver’s dislocation of place. Smithson’s relocations of the natural into the gallery setting questioned the very strictures of the space; MacIver’s ruptures are less dramatic, but equally assertive in their examination of space.
At a time when the world appears to be taking an inward turn, MacIver’s spatially questioning drawings seem to propose an alternate, more open view; in his expanded topography, both of memory and place, the blunted edges of the past are formed into precise geometries. The geography of memory is not logical, yet it arises from an accretive process, like the erosion of a coastline. Here both are liminal, evanescent spaces. In Strata B, triangular planes cascade down, or perhaps up, forming a larger construction that appears to disperse, colors fusing into the grain of the wood. Spaces are undone in these works, even as they coalesce. While the frictions in this work are many, between memory and geography, the natural and the manipulated, the physical and the abstract, all exist easily at the convergences of its exceptional lines.print