Euan Macleod: Figure in a Dissolving Landscape

I was walking my dogs to the dog park a couple of months ago when I saw Euan Macleod and Susan Jarvis coming towards me along the path. I love the way Euan walks along with his shoulders a little stooped and his head in the clouds, a bit like a man from one of his paintings, lost in thought.

We stopped to chat and catch up and of course the talk turned to the coronavirus and how it had radically changed everyone’s lives. Euan volunteered that lots of people had been asking him if the pandemic had found its way into his work. Had it inspired him? Had it driven him into his studio? It absolutely hasn’t, he told me. He confessed that, like many of his artist friends, he’d found the pandemic paralysing rather than galvanising.

It would be wrong to say, however, that Euan hasn’t been working hard during these difficult months. With painting excursions cancelled because of travel restrictions, and boozy gallery openings not happening, he has turned to his studio in a sustained effort of painting. His inspiration was a trip earlier this year to the wilds of a New Zealand glacial landscape where he spent three nights in a tiny hut perched above a vast expanse of white. A helicopter dropped Euan into the remote wilderness with a few light painting materials, the New Zealand photographer Craig Potton and a guide who brought all the food. They were equipped to stay for longer, but were forced to leave early by oncoming bad weather.

Euan Macleod: Jumping glacial stream, 2020

After the trip, Euan locked himself inside his studio at home, and painted and painted. The resulting artworks are now on view at King Street Gallery on William, in East Sydney, where Euan is having his first exhibition after 40 years in the artist-family of the recently-closed Watters Gallery. The new exhibition, Figure in a Dissolving Landscape, is on until September 26.

When I ran into Euan and Susan that day on the path to the dog park, they asked me to come over and have coffee. With Euan’s exhibition a good excuse for a conversation, I went over on August 3 with my dogs Tibbie and Jade (who quickly made themselves at home in Euan’s studio), and recorded the following interview.

You and New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones have produced a new book called High Wire. How did the theme of bridges come about?

It was Lloyd’s suggestion and it was kind of nice because I had been doing bridge paintings. That’s one of those symbols, I love the idea or analogy of going to one place or another, or bridging gaps, and that kind of idea. And he drew the analogy between New Zealand and Australia and that link between them.

The hut on Mount Cook where Euan Macleod stayed for three nights earlier this year

You recently went to Mount Cook in New Zealand on a painting trip? Had you been there before?

Yeah, I used to go climbing when I was young. It’s that volcanic thing, that idea of what’s going on under the surface that I really, really love. And so when I got back I did these little works on paper. I did hundreds of these. And these potentially [and did] become paintings.

We were looking down at all these glaciers around us. It was bloody scary. As long as you didn’t do anything stupid there was nothing wrong but the main problem was you’re just in this environment which is falling apart. You’re in an environment that’s so fragile and so extremely vulnerable. You’re in an environment that’s incredibly beautiful but you feel vulnerable. You feel almost invisible. You shouldn’t really be there. That’s an aspect I was trying to get across, our vulnerability – and the world, really.

Tell me about Lloyd Jones. 

His writing has a lovely visual sense to it. He set out this idea of doing an art book for adults, like a picture book for adults. But the big thing was he changed it from bridges to high wires. To a certain extent it was based on Philippe Petit [the skywalker who stunned New York in 1974 when he nonchalantly walked between the Twin Towers on a high wire]. I didn’t read a lot of what [Jones] wrote until afterwards [not wanting to be influenced before he produced his own work in response to the theme]. But he would make suggestions and it was a collaboration. He loved the idea of people looking up.

Had you tackled the subject of bridges and high wires before?

Tibbie in the studio with Figure in a Dissolving Landscape behind

Not high wires so much but definitely bridges. I’ve done this thing with the rope, and the rope’s a connection. And it’s a bit like a highwire too, it’s a similar kind of thing, trusting in the rope. So it felt right.

[Euan said he wanted the big figure in the middle of his big triptych, Figure in a Dissolving Landscape, to be “dwarfed” by the landscape.] And how do you do that? How do you suggest this massive, massive landscape that’s enveloping the person, without having them tiny? And one way you can do that is you have the figure in the air or in the middle, so I did a lot with people standing in clouds and on clouds, and I thought, well, the highwire is the perfect way because it’s a person suspended in the middle of nothing.

The man in middle panel of the triptych appears to be standing on a precipice.

Mm, I’m glad you can see that. See I know it is, but … that to me, that was like that. The hut was absolutely on a precipice and they’re put there on purpose because the main danger of these huts is rock fall, rocks falling on top of them, so they have to be on rock.

Euan Macleod: Pull Up, 2020

How was the hut? 

It’s pretty spartan but not bad, and we were the only ones there, thank God.

Freezing cold?

No, it wasn’t too bad.

Did you walk out to see the stars? 

Oh yeah, it was all pretty beautiful. The guys got up really early one morning to see the sun come up and I’ve got to say I just went no, fuck you, I want my sleep. Isn’t that terrible!

[Euan said he wanted to paint the “thrill” of being in that landscape.]

The sublime.

Yeah, the Caspar David Friedrich thing. An absolute total influence. All those guys used to do their pilgrimage to the Alps and things, so it’s not that dissimilar, really.

You get the sense in these paintings that you’re a long way from civilisation and human comforts.

Yeah. I don’t do the climbing stuff any more so it’s not dangerous, but you are in an environment if anything goes wrong you’re a long way from any kind of help or support or anything.

When were you a climber? In your 20s and 30s? 

No, younger. And I wasn’t a very good one. I was pretty crappy at it, because it’s one of those things you have to be pretty committed and you also have to be pretty fearless, and I’m not. I wasn’t fearless and I wasn’t committed really. I loved it, and what I loved about it was being in that environment. The thing about climbing mountains, there was a thrill in that, but just being in that environment was just so amazing. You want to be in more and more extreme environments, and you need those skills to help you. But having the guide there was a real bonus and they supplied all the equipment which was just brilliant too.

Euan Macleod in his studio, with Jade keeping him company

When you were there on the mountain, you could work?

Yes, I worked on the acrylics and a few drawings. So the middle panel [of the triptych], that has developed from one of those drawings that I did up there. Just the sense of seeing this ice fall, how the ice fell off the mountain and down into the glacier, it was just spectacular. I’m so pleased I can show you that [the triptych] because I only finished it on Friday.

It’s that sense of being helpless, you’re so tiny in nature. But you’re also not. We’re destroying that landscape, you know, that humanity, well global warming has been terribly, you know, Mount Cook has had a great big huge chunk fall off it and it’s receding all the time. The Tasman Glacier, when I was about 19 when I went up, I walked all the way up. There’s no way you could do that now. It’s so broken up and receded so far. There wasn’t a lake at the end of it when I went up then. Now there’s this massive lake that jet boats go around on and take tourists on. And that’s in, what, 40 years? You look at it and you think, we’re buggering it up.

At least COVID is keeping lots of planes out of the sky for the moment. 

I do probably need to sit in one place and digest where I’ve gone rather than just go flying around. We were going to be going to Greece and Crete in September which would have been great, but I’m enjoying doing this [his current work based on the Mount Cook trip]. That’s the thing, you go on one of those trips and your focus gets shifted and you sometimes, I mean I don’t know where this will lead to. You never know where they’ll go.


Elizabeth Fortescue, September 19, 2020