Even fanatic football fans would be hard-pressed to remember a Glaswegian football team called Partick Thistle, a perpetual underdog in First Division Scottish Football League that’s oft-joked about because of their non-winning ways. Getting behind a team that tries every week but gets nowhere requires no small measure of faith, an action probably synonymous with holding out hope in the long term for that which may never materialise. Supporting Partick Thistle is a show that utilises the metaphor of supporting a losing football team that is akin to the nature and process of painting, a medium which Glasgow-born artist Robert McLeod believes most people think should be dead and buried.
McLeod’s hardly naive about this realm – he recognises all too well the usefulness of painting in what he does – yet he remains a steadfast bearer of its gilded history and value, practicing it, then teaching it. He came to New Zealand 40 years ago wanting to continue where abstract artists such as Willem de Kooning and Alan Davie left off, looking to break away from the rigid formality of his art training in Glasgow. But after 30 years of studying minimalism and abstract expressionism, McLeod noticed a part of Micky Mouse’s ears in an abstract work and turned his practice to exploring the figurative. Most of the work in this show comes from the past decade, comprising mostly three-dimensional paintings on plywood, where layered forms and colour combine to create a motley crew of cartoonish figures that are loud, grotesque and irreverent.
In True Kiwi Content (2004), mutinous, quasi-Disney and Looney Tunes figures – a giant-footed, mini-breasted Frankenstein and more bums, tongues and teeth – stand unmoving before the viewer, as a skeletal Mickey Mouse stands a few paces from this static crowd of caricatures. To McLeod, these cartoon-inspired characters are “familiar and initially endearing….but [are] more often aggressive and with a dark underside”; they are a painted reality in which no one gets hurt for too long. Other installations have multiple, interchangeable parts that could be moved off the wall and reconfigured into a different set of posing characters, consequentially modifying the interactions between audience, installation, and gallery space. The top and bottom halves of McLeod’s Exquisite Choices – The Three Graces (2011) for instance, are mobile, the silhouettes and baggage of the misshapened, pear-shaped ladies wholly dependent on the spectator’s arrangement of their body parts.
The objects and surfaces rendered by McLeod’s brush are inanimate, yet the paintings-cum-installations fill the gallery’s ground floor with bodily space in coy anthropomorphism. While they challenge the passivity of painting, escaping the frame and coming off the walls to invade the physical and psychological spaces of the viewer, more importantly, McLeod turns control over to the audience in putting the images together in an entertaining act that continually questions the performativity of painting.
Robert McLeod was born in Glasgow in 1948, and studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Since emigrating to New Zealand in 1972, he has lived and worked in Wellington. Supporting Patrick Thistle: Paintings, Rob McLeod is at City Gallery,Wellington till September 23.