There is an elementalism in John McLean’s work which is central to his concerns as a painter. To my mind the predominating element is air; an atmospheric aerial movement. In certain paintings, here Thoroughfare being a good example, it is as though shapes have glided into position en route to elsewhere, and are held in momentary suspension. One almost feels that a breeze entering the room might send them on their way again, or rearrange them. Other paintings are redolent of earth, or of the sea. The blue of Calm is oceanic, its shapes a mini-archipelago, its calligraphy forming airy caresses.
McLean has often cited the profound effects upon his work of Matisse and Miró exhibitions in the early 1990s. The assimilation of these artists’ work precipitated a move away from comparatively limited technical effects inspired by the Americans Noland and Louis, to a fuller use of the inherent possibilities of paint. As much as anything, McLean’s work is about the joy of paint as substance. In treatment it ranges from delicate limpid washes, to an impasto made claggy from the addition of pumice.
The other major impact of looking at Matisse and Miró was the introduction of what McLean describes as ‘a much more sophisticated way of using shape.’ Shapes became more formal, introducing a minor degree of narrative, in that any shape is open to interpretation as sign or metaphor. McLean has described the forms within his paintings as ‘units’, which could suggest something mechanistic. Certainly his repertoire includes rather simple, primordial shapes, but he is not a systems man. Each reconfiguration bears the traces of a fresh set of gestures. There are subtleties of mark and texture, both within the forms and at their edges. Edges are important, their inflections triggering responses in peripheries elsewhere within the canvas. A painting’s ground can act as a force field, it nuances giving additional animus to the shapes for which it serves as harbour or backdrop.
In larger paintings motif often takes precedence over ground; the playfully-titled Full Stop has the sense of a contretemps stilled or abated. Space is everywhere in McLean’s work. In this painting the inter-relation of shapes is positively sculptural.
McLean’s exceptional colour palette generates both space and atmosphere. The triangular-formed dunny plum hue in Danza, set in its field of metallic yellow, is mysterious and beautiful. Atacama marries floating emblematic forms reminiscent of late Matisse, with theatrical, dramatic, somewhat Spanish colour.
Whilst the paintings remain essentially and elusively abstract, McLean is a man besotted with language, and narrative is often implied in the title of a picture. Story, with its exhilarating horizontal denouement, is one of these. Pause suggests a momentary agreement or taking of stock, its paired forms holding each other in check. Other titles, for instance Headway, and again Thoroughfare, suggest a journey or quest.
The paintings in this exhibition are both immensely satisfying as individual statements, and suggestive of a wealth of further potential. A painter for over forty years, John McLean is not a man of glib responses, but a consistently self-questioning, intellectually sincere artist.
© Ian Massey, August 2001.
This is a slightly edited version of the essay written for the catalogue for the exhibition John McLean, Flowers East, London, September-October 2001. The painting illustrated here was made later, in 2004, and is a personal favourite.