JOCK McFadyen tells me about the time he got lost in Orkney. But not in a geographic sense.
The painter had been invited to mount an exhibition at the Pier Arts Center for the St Magnus festival at the end of the last century. He had traveled to Stromness with the intention of making new paintings there in a workshop entrusted to him in an old abandoned school. But he quickly discovered he had a problem.
He then explores urban spaces, often abandoned, in his work. He had painted flyovers, graffiti and subway stations. But there weren’t many in Stromness.
“All I could see was this beautiful island landscape,” he remembers now, “and my first instinct was to get in the car and drive to Kirkwall and look for a supermarket or bus shelter that was there. had been vandalized. ”
“And then I thought, ‘No, don’t do that. You are called. Don’t just go back to your recipe and do what you know you can do. It is pathetic.
Instead, he started taking pictures of what he saw in front of him. It took a little adjustment, he admits. “It wasn’t hard in painting. It was psychologically difficult. Change your mindset, reposition your attitude. I was more or less forced into it because I was stuck there and there is not much to do. And I thought, ‘Well, I can’t paint a sheep.’ ”
And after doing that, he says, “I realized how easy landscape painting is. It’s terrible to say, but it’s not a complex prospect. It’s not like being Canaletto, painting a hill. It’s easier. So the paint could really sway, the paint could breathe.
“And I got it. I could see the Whistler Nocturnes. I could see Turner’s Rothkoesque minimalism. I got into this and really enjoyed it. I also started making smaller images, which I had never done before. So I started doing all this unusual work for me. It took me on a new path.
It’s a path you can take from then to today and from Stromness to today, at Dovecot in Edinburgh a week before the opening of his new exhibition, Lost Boat Party. An exhibition of recent works that includes paintings of the Salisbury Rocks and Hebridean skies, dogs on Carnoustie Beach, and a rusty abandoned bus on Harris (some things don’t change).
And since this is the dovecote, there is a tapestry to accompany it, the Mallaig Commission, based on one of McFadyen’s paintings and created by weaver Louise Trotter, is a gorgeous deep blue thing with touches of color.
McFadyen is clearly delighted. “I really like the tapestry because it is quite a blobby. She interpreted it quite freely, which I like.
“There is spontaneity in painting because it moves quickly. And what they’re doing here is quite deliberate and it solidifies what was once fluid. They make it still and precise and something quite amazing happens. I’m not sure how it goes, but there is a freeze in the action.
McFadyen, at 70, is anything but frozen. Born in Paisley and based in London, he is an artist of Scottish descent who does not consider himself to be part of the Scottish art scene. And yet Scotland is part of who he is and what he does.
In the cover pages of the Lost Boat Party catalog, there are two cards. Inside the cover is a slice of East London. Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, the curving neck of the Thames and a corner of Rotherhithe on the other side.
“My house is almost in the middle of it,” Jock McFadyen points out. “And then on the back flap, there are the Uists,” he adds.
“So, at the risk of sounding like a Roman invader, this is my territory. I go around these places.
Read more: Jock McFadyen on sex, violence and art
And Scotland is finally starting to make a fuss about it. The Dovecot show is the second exhibition to open in Edinburgh in a few months.
However, it hasn’t been easy lately. This past year should have been a pivotal year for McFadyen. In his 70th year, he had planned four exhibitions, but that was swept away by the arrival of the pandemic, which also decided to make it personal.
“Yes, I had Covid in March 2020. It was pretty bad. It wasn’t bad-bad. I did not go to the hospital. They said, ‘Just come to the hospital if you’re short of breath.’ And I didn’t get out of breath. I have everything else. The fatigue was incredible. I have never felt anything like this in my life.
His wife, Scottish musician Susie Honeyman, best known for her work with The Mekons, has also contracted Covid, as have her two sons. And there have been other problems caused by the pandemic. An exhibition at Edinburgh’s City Art Center, Jock McFadyen Goes to the Pictures, which opened last November has been cut short by the lockdown. ” It was a shame. Because it took three years to plan it and then I think it was opened for a month.
Another show at the Lowry in Manchester has been postponed. But the Dovecot exhibit, which is more bespoke than either, will at least take place.
McFadyen is wary of the idea that art has a nationality. But is he, I wonder, a different painter in Scotland than he is in England? “I come to Scotland all the time and I see it and I answer it. It’s funny. It offers something different from what I usually do.
What he usually does is paint landscapes suited to decay and ruin. Nothing new there, he says. “In fact, 350 years ago all European painters came to Rome to paint the ruins of broken pillars. But his Scottish paintings offer a new window into his view of the world.
McFadyen made a name for himself in the 1970s with punk portraits of distorted faces and bodies laden with the threat (or promise) of sex and violence, against an urban backdrop. Over time, the people in his photos have disappeared.
“My photos are influenced by road movies, novels, diasporas and things like that, so the scenery is still there. And the thing with Scotland is that it’s always between the buildings. Whether it’s Fife peering between the buildings of New Town, Princes Street, Queen Street or George Street. You don’t get that in London. It’s just from the inside out. You have to go out into Essex or Kent or along the Thames to find where the city gives way to the countryside.
How does he know which landscape to paint, I ask? “There are two answers to this. The most cynical is: “I’ll get a better picture out of it.” But the point is, the most important thing is the painting. What will the paint be used for?
“The paint is the subject, so if the paint doesn’t fall off properly, you have to try to keep it. This is what you always try to do, which probably allows the imagery to creep in on its own without you being entirely responsible for it. Because you’re basically throwing in a colored liquid and trying to get it to do something akin to music.
“But you started to paint a landscape. The first thing I would paint anyway is the sky, I would try something underneath and I was like, “Oh my God, that doesn’t work. I’m going to get rid of this mountain and put a monkey or a banana on it. You could do it, but the sky remains because I think it works great.
“It’s like being in a recording studio with a band. “I really like the bassline, but the drums are crap. Then we will try to bring the organ. The song is just something that wraps around the music.
He is wonderfully opinionated on his work and his art in general. In our time together, he castigates public art (“preaching”) and the art market (“unspeakably boring because it has just been put on the market for validation”). But what he loves he loves deeply.
We are talking about the idea of beauty. What is its definition? ” I do not have any. It could be a feeling, it could be a girl, it could be a child. A newborn is beautiful. if it is not beautiful what is it? ”
He points to a lamppost through the window. “This rusty bracket that supports this lamp is quite beautiful.
“In painting, I don’t think there is much beautiful because there is so much shit paint everywhere.
“I think the paint really works in Whistler’s Nocturnes and Turner and obviously Holbein. The great artists. This is the bar. This is where the beauty of painting lies, and everyone knows it. No matter how much they might discuss it, this is where it is. It’s there for everyone to see.
He shows me a picture of his latest painting on his phone. At the bottom of the table, there is a row of houses. It’s Bethnal Green, he said. “It’s a BP station, it’s a small hotel, it’s a bridge leading down to the city of London.”
“But this,” he said, pointing to the mountain towering over the painting, “it’s Mont Blanc. The painting was going wild, and I was like“ F *** it ”and I painted Mont Blanc there.
“I couldn’t have known this was going to happen. And Susie said the classic thing. ‘It’s brilliant.’ I said, ‘Is this?’ I was just ruining it before I tore it up.
The great art critic Tom Lubbock, who died in 2011, once wrote that in his paintings McFadyen is like a tourist without a guide. It’s a line that has struck home with its subject. “I realized this was who I wanted to be. I don’t want to have an agenda.
In short, Jock McFadyen is not afraid of being a little lost. He knows he will always end up in an interesting place.
Lost Boat Party takes place at Dovecot Studios until September 25