David Mackintosh

Abigail Christenson

Signs and Diversions, an Interview with David Mackintosh


Turn four unmarked corners in Manchester, and you might have to guess exactly where you are. Street corners here don’t always display street signs. This is a city of diversions; exactly where you end up often becomes a result of guess-work and remembrance of past journeys. And you soon learn the journey can be so much more interesting than the destination.

A man’s head, turned away,
A corner, (I think) three lines converge,
Lips parted slightly, in anticipation,
A cigarette lays in wait, perched in the ‘V’ of a woman’s fingers,
A city at night, a neon sign flashes ‘Amateur Night’,
An asteroid hovers, another dips

David Mackintosh’s art gives away only vital information, his drawings – simple outlines and contour drawings, centrally placed on paper - employ an incredibly simple economy of line, appearing at first to be intentionally amateurish. Like an un-tuned piano played by a trained musician.  
The artist is currently at work on his newest stop-frame animation – provisionally titled The Dark Form - and I’ve met him in his Manchester studio to see him at work.  The walls of his studio are empty except for a wooden framework leaning against one and, pinned to another, a sequence of black gouache drawings lined up, in a queue for possible inclusion in the animation. His work-table is place close to the electrical sockets; his laptop and scanner are close at hand. There is a large bookshelf with stacks of drawings, diluted gouache paint in cut-off milk jugs, brushes, within arm’s reach.
“Rogue Artists’ Studios & Project Space” reads the sign outside.  Mackintosh’s studio is situated between other studios, the sounds of neighbour-artists carry through the walls, outside a helicopter flies by, a police siren fades into the mid-distance.
There is something of Manchester in Mackintosh’s art. His drawings and stop-frame animations lead the viewer on short journeys of guess-work, interspersed with diversions into new directions.  
When Mackintosh draws he stands – like a musician, or a conjuror – in control and attentive to his art; he works from above, looking down on his papers laid out below. Mackintosh uses round brushs and gouache, “almost always black” but sometimes red, green or yellow. Within this arrangement, his drawing itself is spontaneous. He uses a ‘stream of consciousness method’ - drawing partial figures, the notions of things, lines suggestive of horizons, and the contours of objects. Mackintosh quickly “edits”/throws aside un-wanted works, pinning the rest to his walls until his studio is filled with drawings.
Mackintosh’s animation work was initially a diversion away from his drawing practice, itself a diversion from his painting practice, which he began after graduating from the University of Sunderland in 1990 and moving to Manchester.  He found that in reviewing his days’ drawings, either pinned on his studio walls or captured by his digital camera, that he was becoming more and more fascinated by the sequences and the scenes that occasionally developed.  Now, animation has become an essential part of his artistic practice, drawing the other, and music yet another – Mackintosh plays bass for an art-band, Die Kunst.  
In exhibitions, his drawings are often displayed hanging from large wooden frameworks, their sculptural ‘objecthood’ emphasised by their location away from the walls and by the way the paper buckles from the damp marks left on it. His animations are often projected onto large hanging screens, filling the gallery space with ambient, screen light.  Viewers move around his spatial drawings and animations, finding their own ways and making their own connections between each separate piece. Mackintosh’s drawings and animations have received positive responses – in 2011 he had a successful solo exhibition at Chapter in Cardiff, and in 2010 at the Cornerhouse in Manchester and Works/Projects in Bristol.
We talk about signs, diversions, marks, and words.
I turn to his animation drawings pinned to the wall. Semi-resemblant images, sign-like perhaps, but his marks are far from being the same as words. Words are arbitrary signs (there is no connection between the word “asteroid” and the tangible object; there is no resemblance between words and objects). But Mackintosh’s marks often resemble the object depicted. We see in his art a connection between the asteroid depicted and a tangible asteroid, a connection between three lines converging into what resembles a corner, and the corner of the studio in which we are.
And in another sense, and in the sense that Mackintosh uses the term ‘sign’, his marks and drawings are sign-like as they point us away from one direction and into a new. To Mackintosh his marks and drawings are not arbitrary signs, like words, but signs like street signs, and more specifically like road-block signs.
In his drawings and animations, the artist explains, “signs are there to divert meanings and associations made by the viewers, like road-blocks.” He points over to the drawings pinned to the wall of a woman’s fingers holding a cigarette, and the drawing of a man’s head. “They are signs,” he explains.  Such signs placed in his animations purposely direct our attention, just before the sequence falls into a narrative.  Such drawings tell us what is what, and where we are headed, even if for only a moment.  
Sometimes Mackintosh includes words as diversions, to divert meaning from one direction to another. 
“There are some things I want to run by you,”
“ideas about social issues,”
“things I need to address,”
“notions,” state four frames in his animation, “The Edge of Things,” 2010.
Mackintosh’s avoids completed narratives. His drawings and animations might hint of a world full of stories, storytelling and storytellers, (or film, filming and filmmakers) but we only glimpse short fragments, close-ups of limbs and heads, a woman swaying to a repetitive rhythm, two men leaning together as if in a mini-huddle. And when we begin to recognise a sequence as forming a narrative, Mackintosh diverts our attention, points us in a different direction, sometimes with words.
Before the curtain closes, “listen,” states the final frames of The Curtain, 2011, “are you awake?”

Sounds like tuning the radio

Mackintosh’s drawings look and sound like someone tuning the radio, searching for something recognisable. In his animation The Edge of Things, 2010, Mackintosh includes the sounds of someone tuning the radio, paired with a short sequence of driving, the horizon line wavering, our view mainly of an auto’s interior.  This sound of static slowly becoming something recognisable is surprisingly satisfying, a diversion but a familiar one. Elsewhere in The Edge of Things, Mackintosh’s piano playing (on an out-of-tune piano) is paired with drawings of the edge of a wood. The piano’s simple rhythm matches the rhythm of the trees.
Before I depart, Mackintosh shows me an excerpted sequence from his unfinished animation The Dark Form – an asteroid seems to hover for some time, not sure which direction it might take. Mackintosh explains that the starting points for this current work were his drawings of asteroids from 2011, his research into the phenomenon of ‘industrial melanism’ and the city itself. Soon the artist will be adding more scanned drawings, creating more sequences and later adding sounds. The sounds usually start from percussive rhythms he taps out while drawing. Occasionally he records the initial sounds on his mobile phone, working further on them when he has a chance. Like sketches, these first sounds are simple, usually sequences of a few notes, repeated.
Mackintosh’s current plan for The Dark Form is to use sounds that he makes himself with his mouth, (“waaawaaawaaaw,” he demonstrates,) his mouth making sounds almost like electronic waves. The resulting sound, like much of Mackintosh’s art is ‘almost recognisable’, as an ‘almost word,’ an ‘almost phrase’, paired as they are with ‘almost objects’.  

Text by Abigail Christenson

Abigail Christenson is Curator: Young People at Tate Liverpool, a writer on art, and she is currently curating an exhibition titled Extreme States of Being, to open autumn 2012 at Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin.

Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin.