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NWR Issue 112

John Macfarlane’s exhibition

Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff is host to John Macfarlane’s exhibition until 26 November 2016.

John Macfarlane’s latest exhibition at Martin Tinney Gallery is small but tightly focused. It centres on his recent work designing scenery and costume with the Royal Ballet, Metropolitan Opera, and Chicago Lyric Opera. Their productions of Frankenstein, Rusalka, and Tosca, respectively, are the inspiration for many of the exhibition’s paintings. It contains work inspired by the action on stage, and still-life work, characterised by a fondness for domestic subjects focused around the kitchen. Plates, bowls and cutlery on weathered tables reign in these pastorals to domestic life.

The paintings capture both the mood on stage and the production leading up to performance. Studies of scenery and costume reveal details forgotten in the movement of the body on stage. Macfarlane’s chief concern, it seems, is with movement, created through a flowing, purposefully uncertain brushstroke. The movement of his opera and ballet studies invite the viewer to look beyond the canvas itself – a frozen moment, yet poised to make the next step. In The Song to the Moon, for example, Rusalka’s dress merges with the water below, her head held high in song to the eternal moon. Costume becomes environment – the water nymph ensnared by her own dress, even as she wishes to become human.

Macfarlane’s still-life work, still inspired by Rusalka, stands in stark contrast. The focus here is distinctly domestic, rustic – homely, even. One would be tempted to say that there is nothing interesting to see here, but that would deny the movement and force evident in these works. In them, Macfarlane focuses on his subject. Dirtied cutlery is positioned on a plate, revealing only a fraction of the table. As lines spill over the edge of the canvas, we wonder what is just beyond them.

The energy of the strokes invites us to explore further. What is ostensibly just cutlery on a plate becomes a whole kitchen scene. In Big Red Table, for example, cutlery is littered around a rustic wooden table, an egg shell hinting at a cake being made. Nothing exciting on its own – but fundamental respect is given to the mundane, yet vital, workings of the kitchen.

In only one work, Pomegranate, does food feature explicitly. This fruit, ripe in symbolism, is a fitting choice, representing fertility but also the forbidden. The biblical ‘Promised Land’ is described in terms of the pomegranate – a fruitful, plentiful land. Yet some have suggested the pomegranate was Eden’s forbidden fruit. Here, in Macfarlane’s work, it is split open, its seeds spilling out. We wonder: should we meet the painting with foreboding or joy? That is, are we headed for exile, or the promised land?

When food is presented in Macfarlane’s work, we must meet it with a deep sense of ambivalence. In Big Red Table we are reminded of that famous proverb – that an omelette can’t be made without breaking eggs. Whatever these eggs have made, though, is somewhere out of shot – or not there at all. The pomegranate bursting, full of seeds, is a wilfully mixed metaphor. Whether it is a sign of plenitude or absence, we cannot say.

Not having seen the performances of which these paintings speak, it would be easy to write them off as irrelevant and out of context. We might rather see them as profoundly ekphratic – art speaking back to art. The power of opera and ballet captured, paused – just for a second – before moving on again. These works both pause the movement on stage and suggest more to come. The apparent stillness of the kitchen, too, is captured. At the same time, it suggests an inevitable violence and uncertain dread inherent in its very mundanity. Or perhaps some calm before the music begins again.

Jack Pugh is a Cardiff-based blogger and this summer carried out a work placement via Cardiff University at New Welsh Review.


       


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