Q+Art: Place, Space, and Memory Merge in Neil McClelland’s Haunting Landscape Paintings
Artist Neil McClelland grew up on the edge of a dark forest. His childhood home, a family-operated farm in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, is the inspiration for the painter’s latest body of moody work. Combining elements of Surrealism, Symbolism, and Romanticism, McClelland’s dream-like landscapes explore the corruption of memory through the disorienting passage of time.
The Canadian painter, who now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, visits his family farm annually, further removed from the halcyon days of boyhood with each passing year. McClelland interprets the farm’s dark, slumping barns and foreboding trees as evidence of an interfering outside force, one that manipulates his memories slowly, almost imperceptibly, as time ticks by. His landscapes “reflect both a yearning for perfect happiness and the fragility of the paradises we seek.” McClelland continues: “As in dreams, images of place accumulate, merge, and transform in ways that defamiliarize and that also suggest a symbolic significance.”
William Blake’s classic Romantic tome, Songs of Innocence and Experience, offers a close parallel by exploring the transformative effects of time and personal experience. Like Blake, McClelland’s work suggests the innocent lamb will eventually become the fearsome Tyger, given enough time. “Each return [home] adds another layer of experience, becomes a measure of the distance in time and space that I have travelled,” McClellan explains. “Time bends and blurs, land shifts and moves, and anything might happen.”
His warped and windy night scenes resemble wormholes, theoretical tunnels that connect one point in spacetime to another. Despite the nod to science fiction, McClelland’s work ultimately disowns a reasoned response to the traumas of time. Instead, the artist invites us to embrace the mystery and grieve our losses with all the awe, terror, tears, and hope we can muster.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Neil McClelland discusses the keys to documenting your work, capturing the contradictions of life, and the visual theater of drifting clouds.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
NM: I’m reading everything I can get by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard on art, life, and everything else. I also like having art history books, books on painting, and artist biographies.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
NM: The books that I have had open on the kitchen table in my studio for a while now are exhibition catalogues for Cézanne and Peter Doig, so I’d like to have dinner with both of these artists together.
What are you trying to express with your art?
NM: I’m always looking for the tensions and contradictions in life and in the world, and trying to capture this.
What person has most influenced your work?
NM: I think it’s always good to have someone around who knows your work and can give you some perspective. In my case, that’s my spouse. Having those art conversations are part of daily life.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
NM: Singing along loudly to music that I’m listening to with my headphones on in the studio.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
NM: I recently completed my second painting project funded by the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. I’m very happy with the dedicated time I put into this year-long period of artistic activity and with the work I created.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
NM: My MFA supervisor suggested that I buy a good camera and document my work, because more people would see my art online than in person.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
NM: Even though I was already building a career as an exhibiting artist, the MFA helped me to push at the boundaries of my art as part of a community. It also opened up teaching opportunities.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
NM: Jazz and black metal.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
NM: I had planned a research trip to create paintings that draw their inspiration from my childhood home in Quebec, which is across the country from where I live in British Columbia, but with the pandemic I wasn’t able to travel. The inaccessibility of home ended up giving the paintings, I think, a heightened expressivity and surreal quality.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
NM: We’ve had to do a lot of things online, and I think this expanded digital presence will continue, but as a supplement. I think there’s going to be a renewed sense of appreciation for being able to go out and see art in person.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
NM: Clouds. Big chunky clouds that are scudding or drifting by, over some activity that occurs below. The theater of the sky is a visual spectacle accessible to most of us, a shared experience. I‘m interested in how the relationship between sky and earth translates to the compositional tension between the upper and lower parts of a painting, and I like to play with dark and light so that time is sometimes indeterminate or incongruous.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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