Paintings That Reconnect With the Past

The English artist Alexander Mackenzie (b. 1923, Liverpool) is a modernist with an intense feeling for history. He is an abstractionist with a vivid sense of the time-fostered atmosphere, of the buried memories associated with specific places. He is a landscapist more aware of the ancient bones under the land than of its surface appearance. He is a draftsman with an almost Zen-like economy of touch and placement.

His line, like a tough strand of wool, is both tense and gentle. Its stretching out and springing up are what determine, more than anything, the character of his works. He makes these lines thicker or more wiry, stronger or fainter, with careful precision - but without any sense of stylistic performance or showing off. Sincerity seems to be built into the fibers of his images.

Though his lines are never rigid, they sometimes curve stiffly as they proceed over the paper or board of a picture, like the black-sooted dry-stone walls that enclose fields in the northern parts of England - particularly the West Riding of Yorkshire, which he came to know as a schoolboy. At other times, his lines fix and describe the contour of a hill or the subtle fall or undulation of a slope or dale.

Mackenzie's lines and planes do have their own life independent from their evident role as means of description, however. Talking about ``Scratta,'' his very small oil painting of January 1978, he says it is ``fairly figurative'' and adds that he ``didn't alter it.''

While there is no reason to doubt that the lines that move and angle over this austere, rough-textured landscape, merging in its higher reaches into cloud and mist and light, derive directly from observation, it is just as certain that this observation has been translated into the visual language of his art. This individual language has structure and tactility contained within its finesse. It has a universality, almost a symbolic aspect to it, as if it were concentrated into an essential mystique of sign and mark. Yet it is not remote in feeling.

The specific landscape out of which ``Scratta'' comes is in the Derbyshire Peak District, which Mackenzie visited in order to see one of England's neolithic stone circles, Arbor Low. He is deeply interested in such ancient remains, visiting chambered tombs, barrows, and henges all over England, as well as in Ireland and Greece. He feels that we have lost connection with the roots of our past, and one of his aims is a re-establishment of such antiquity as a mainspring for art. He speaks with great admiration of the Catalan artist Tapies as a contemporary whose work has retained links, though in modern form, with native traditions and that ``still has some connection with religion.''

``Scratta'' is the local nickname for a hill near a Derbyshire village called Wardlow, somewhat north of the famous ancient site of Arbor Low. Mackenzie was greatly taken with the landscape in this area. He must have asked someone the name of the hillside he was drawing; it does not appear on the map.

The locals refer to it as ``up Scratta,'' and one of them suggests that it might be a word connected with lead-mining, but she is not sure. Whatever the case, I suspect that Mackenzie simply liked the word's sound, as well as its vernacular usage. He is no topographical recorder of famous places, of the obvious destinations of touristic pilgrimage.

Instead, Mackenzie is an artist with a feel for the land's underlying past - which, after all, whether it is in Derbyshire, or Cornwall (where he now lives), Yorkshire, Greece, or Tuscany, is (for those with eyes to see it) a profoundly integral part of its present.

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