Ian McKeever’s work and theoretical intentions have unarguably developed over his career, however the primary concerns intrinsic to his practice have remained constant. In this essay I will write about McKeever’s running obsessions with dualities, travel, transient light, transparency, time and the theoretical idea of Dasein.
Upon first glance McKeever’s paintings appear to move, as though something is living and breathing inside, shifting slightly every time you glance at it despite the static nature of paint on canvas. He uses thinned paints to create transparency, revealing previously applied layers, adding a mystery to the works. Screen-like qualities with overlapping ovals of gossamer white generate a ghostly x-ray depth. There are noticeable binary characteristics in McKeever’s artistic vocabulary; with repeating motifs of “form and formlessness, flatness and depth” (Allthorpe-Guyton 2009), white against black and light against dark that are echoed between his paintings (Elwes 2010). The glassy shapes appear like soap bubbles, the transient light reminiscent of the ocean; dancing on top, getting darker as the layers deepen.
McKeever became interested in the human body in the mid 1980s (The Royal Academy of Arts 2003) and within the diaphanous veils in this period, the eye becomes drawn to a point which seems to breathe, causing the work to pulsate. This point acting at the core of the work tricks the eye into seeing the paint shift, which could be interpreted as a reference to a beating heart- holding the composition together. Some of the works appear to represent bright sunlight and that near-blindness sensation where backs of eyelids can be seen. The light linear elements against the dark ground seems to mimic that, or could be otherwise interpreted as an abstraction of the brain’s interior, where neural synapses spark. The movement in McKeever’s work can also be linked to his relationship with the sea: “As a child I grew up close to the sea…in ceaseless ebb and flow…two membranes which were different yet the same, one echoing back to the other ” (Bech Dyg 2014). The breathing sensation and ‘push/pull’ of his paintings could therefore be explained by the artist’s connection to the coast.
McKeever’s earlier works heavily intersected with the land he was working from; he even installed paintings back into the landscape upon completion and photographed them, documenting the effect of nature and time. McKeever showed early works alongside his photographs ‘to contrast the causality of photographic representation with the subjectively mediated painterly image” (Art Monthly 2012). His subject was profoundly obvious as landscape in the early years, “reflecting the many journeys he made to such places as Greenland, Papua New Guinea and Siberia” but in the mid 1980s he refrained from making direct allusions to landscapes; “his work became more abstract, reflecting a growing interest in the human body and architectural structures” (The Royal Academy of Arts 2003). This interface between abstraction and figuration makes it difficult to group his ideologies on a logical timeline. However, McKeever has said that “The different groups of paintings have never been presented as a continuous history, only as discrete periods” (Adams 2010). His fascinations merge throughout his career; even in works which reference the human body there is an essence of landscape, a sense of a horizon, evoking a living human geography.
In the essay ‘Veils’, Henrik Wivel likens the binary characteristics in McKeever’s work with the metaphor of an “archetypal Platonic image of a cave (consciousness imprisioned in dull matter) and the light (an illuminated consciousness)” (Tucker 2009). Essentially, Wives suggests that when the artist uses a deep blue shrouded by a light chalky white, it is “as if the inside of the human body and the farthest limits of the sky meet in them” (Tucker 2009) - a reference to a spiritual moment when a human body and the Earth coalesce. Wivel’s metaphor backs the idea that McKeever is“not representing something through pictorial conventions” (Lampert 1990) but intends to create a monumental presence in his paintings. This presence, stemming from his obsession with landscapes, means that “they constantly appear, even when he patterns bare white surfaces with lines or fissured areas” (Herzogenrath 1990).
Although his later work took on a new visual identity, binary qualities have been ever-present and link to his interest in dualities. This can be noted in the diptychs made between 1983-90, which consist “of forms, voids and other schisms that engulf space and feeling” (Lampert 1990). The Diptychs are a group of twenty works, the majority of which use old paintings as a ground and have a monochrome panel sat alongside another, in which the balance is inverted. Each canvas is “morphologically a converse of its pair” (Allthorpe-Guyton 2009), preventing the viewer from “settling on a fixed understanding of what constitutes ground and what constitutes image” (Lampert 1990). The nature of the diptychs sparked McKeever’s investigation of “duality between instantaneous and layered time” (Lampert 1990), which is particularly characteristic of the painting ‘Aa II’.
In the left panel there is a great blackhole-esque portion of negative space, with what appears as a crystalline structure blooming into the centre, representative of a layered time. The right panel heavily contrasts this and appears to explode with instantaneous energy. In these diptychs, McKeever looks at time as a continuous timeline rather than a snapshot; the binary format “resists closure and embraces fluid interrelationship”, aiding the way that McKeever’s painterly “knowledge carries over from one painting to the next” (Allthorpe-Guyton 2009). It is clear that McKeever is more concerned with embodying the imperceptible, transient sensation of ‘being’ rather than portraying a visually discernible subject. The dualities lend to this; the contrasting panels acting as a metaphysical rendering of a reaction to the external world.
In the early 2000s McKeever returned to this binary format to express his ideas and The Eagduru Diptychs were made. The Old English word Eagduru has a dual meaning: to either to look out of or to physically pass through something. The dual meaning of the title is present in the structure of the works, which combine photography and paint. These mediums work together to embody both “representation and expression which co-exist seamlessly” (Hackelbury 2014) in order to depict two polar experiences of “space, depth, texture, light, and narrative” (Ottesen, 2010) in one singular diptych.
Another fundamental component in McKeever’s creative practice is travel. In a journal article titled ‘The Shape of Time’, we learn that McKeever draws subjects from his own experiences. The journal focuses on how the “physical [and intellectual] experience of his surroundings” (Biggs 1990) is the information he is interested in ‘putting’ into his paintings; not the visible landscape but “the sense of an unimaginably long time-scale pressing onto the present” (Lampert 1990). So, despite appearances, the subject matter of landscape is subordinate to the works. McKeever’s travels to these places “are not in search of a subject but of a method; not ‘wilderness’, but ‘information’” (Lampert 1990) from which to paint. In conversation with Richard Deacon, McKeever declared that “Place is where I am. Not necessarily in the geographical sense, but …where I position myself from moment to moment” (Lynton 2010). It is obvious, from both his paintings and what McKeever has expressed, that the metamorphoses of landscape over time is a concept he will continue to return to. His desire is to make work “countered by the need to hold onto and define the physical world” (Lynton 2010). Essentially, the journeys lead him to make work responding in his fundamentally metaphysical style to the time he has spent in a place.
McKeever’s work has always been concerned with time. From as early as 1972 he “installed drawings and paintings directly in landscape…to let the elements and his paintings co-exist and address each other over time” (Lynton 2010). Over the years this developed into “a philosophical speculation with a deep personal and emotional resonance” which many critics have linked to his sister’s death in 1987 (Lloyd 2004). After his sister’s death McKeever began the project ‘A History of Rocks’ which consists of forty pieces, one for each year of his life. The panels were installed like pages spanning length-ways on the walls, demanding that the series be ‘read’ which suggests “a conceptual, knowledge based perusal… The works echo the ideas of time and dasein” (Lampert 1990).
McKeever’s awakening to dasein can be accredited to his reading of Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (1927), “with its metaphysical ideas of dasein, of being in the world” (Allthorpe-Guyton 2009). This concern of ‘being in’ the world as opposed to simply observing it is deep-rooted in McKeever’s practice - he does not believe a visual experience of the world enough. An authentic existence (i.e. dasein), by Heidegger’s definition, is the combination of a being’s past, present and future (Lloyd 2004). This philosophical idea can relate to McKeever; after opening himself to conceptual thinking he began to base his work purely on an awareness of his surroundings. McKeever describes the orbs in his work “as visualisations of his sensations of space and time” (Lloyd 2004) and over the latter part of his career his painting has evolved into completely non-representational works, each suggestive of his response to the awe-inspiring sensation of coexisting with the natural world. The notions of time can also be noted in McKeever’s series Four Quartets (2002), based on T.S. Eliot’s poetic series which complement McKeever’s idea of time: that it is not sequential, but rather “a complex summation of experiences, sensations, associations and memories” (Lloyd 2004).
Researching Ian McKeever has given rise to an interest in layering to prompt a depth of field in my paintings. An illusion of paint ‘shifting’ is also something I’d like to harness within my pieces, acting as a symbol of the Cornish landscape and how it constantly changes over time, through the tide’s ebb and flow or degradation of rocks. In an attempt to sum up McKeever’s development, he has moved further away from a materialist understanding of the world in favour of a more spiritual concept. At their core, McKeever’s paintings encourage the viewer to contemplate the idea of “human finitude” (Tucker 2009) and essentially, the temporality of human existence on this Earth.
List of References
ALLTHORPE-GUYTON, Marjorie. 2009. Ian McKeever Paintings. Surrey: Lund Humphries.
BIGGS Lewis, 1990. Ian Mckeever - Paintings 1978-1990, London: Whitechapel Art Gallery
HERZOGENRATH Wulf. 1990. Ian Mckeever - Paintings 1978-1990, London: Whitechapel Art Gallery
LAMPERT, Catherine. 2009. Ian McKeever Paintings. Surrey: Lund Humphries.
LLOYD, Jill. 2004. IAN MCKEEVER: RECENT PAINTINGS AND TEN YEARS OF DRAWING. Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard
LYNTON, Norbert. 2010. ARTISTS’ LABORATORY IAN MAKEOVER RA 01, Hartgrove Paintings 1992-94, London: Tradewinds
MCKEEVER, Ian. 2004, Sentinel: recent paintings and works on paper. London, Alan Cristea Gallery
TUCKER, Michael. 2009. Ian McKeever Paintings. Surrey: Lund Humphries.
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Art Monthly. 2012. VOLUME/ISSUE: No. 359. Available at https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-302300183/ian-mckeever-hartgrove [accessed 06/04/16]
BECH DYG, Kasper. 2014. ‘Ian McKeever: Mystery to the Viewer’. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hh6QbJNvWZE MYSTERY TO THE VIEWER_ [accessed 05/04/16].