Go Figure

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EUAN MACLEOD

The Little Snowman (2009), oil on canvas, 84 by 120 cm, from a private collection

Euan Macleod is a cheerful 54-year-old, with the same slight stoop as the figure slouching through most of his paintings. In his studio in Sydney's inner west, amid strewn canvas, papers and rags, he picks up one of his paintings to get the light behind it. "It's gnarly and nasty," he says. "You can see the scratch marks. I just felt like I was getting a bit too pretty."

Nasty or not, this is Macleod's moment. This month, the New Zealand — born painter is the subject of both a lavish new tome filled with two decades' worth of color plates and an extensive exhibition that runs at Sydney's S.H. Ervin Gallery until Dec. 19 before embarking on a national tour. "They call it a survey rather than a retrospective," he explains, and then quips, "I think that's because you're not dead."

Macleod is, more or less, what success looks like for artists who have passed their bright-young-thingness but are not yet cultural institutions. His work is kept by major private and public collectors — it hangs in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Australia, among others — and he's won a swag of major prizes. And yet, says Macleod, "this is the first year I haven't had another job. I finally stopped teaching this year, with the book and the show."

Since his 1981 move to Sydney, Macleod has painted through the art form's forgotten years. "It was at a time when painting was incredibly uncool," he says. "Performance art was really big, and it was the beginning of installation, very much more conceptual art. Painting was seen as a real anachronism."

Of course, others kept at it, including a senior cohort of Sydney daubers like Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. Macleod's persistence didn't lead to their level of renown, but it did result in the evolution of his staple motifs — that suggestively anonymous figure and the landscapes through which it moves. On what the figure means, Macleod is agnostic, but others point to types that recur in the painting tradition — the outcast, the seer in the desert, or simply Macleod-as-artist, journeying across humanity's arid wastes.

The landscapes range from tracts of bush to deserts and, in the case of two works in progress, views of poplars in New Zealand and of Antarctic ice. In some recent works, a dinghy recurs. Macleod talks of Charles Sturt, the English explorer of Australia's deserts, who carried a whaling rowboat in hope of reaching an inland sea, and of Ernest Shackleton, pulling lifeboats across the Antarctic ice. "It's just a pretty wacky image, isn't it?" he laughs. And yet not entirely. In some paintings, he unwittingly echoes photographs of his father, boat builder Roy Macleod, who died of complications arising from Alzheimer's in 1993. In one shot, taken in New Zealand, Macleod senior stands in a dinghy. "It's so bloody close. There's the photo there, and there's a painting I did. So close. And that posture — that's his posture, but it's also my posture."

Some wildlife has also worked its way into Macleod's new Antarctic canvas; he likes penguins, he says, because of how they, like human figures, lend the landscape a scale — "They became these great little Gulliver characters." But he means to keep the human figure too. "The figure for some reason just makes sense of it for me." He gestures at his unfinished canvas of poplars and says, "That would look good with a figure, wandering down the road."