David Mackintosh

Axel Lapp

David Mackintosh


There are images of death and violence; of sex, bodies, torsos and limbs; of haystacks, lambs and bears in the wood. There are also images of a bird sitting on a man's head, or of a dog standing upright and spitting. Some of these images seem to be taken directly from dreams: a torero, ready to sink his last sword into the flesh of an enormous beast, faces only a tiny chicken; the roughly painted form of a head floats beneath a scrawled black cloud and the legend ‘Kill Frank’.
In his drawings, his works in wood and films, David Mackintosh presents an array of impressions through which the whole world seems to reverberate. All of Mackintosh's work is based on his drawings, as all of his images are first invented on paper. Using a brush and black gouache, he explores and notes his ideas on landscape format sheets of A1 cartridge paper. He draws them in studio sessions that last many days, or even weeks. These drawing periods are times of sustained concentration on the process of visual exploration. In them, Mackintosh will produce tens and tens of drawings, but most will fall as casualties during his brutal editing. The resulting drawings are by and large placed centrally on the paper - only a few filling the format. Occasionally, a little colour is added or some text inscribed. Most of them, however, are black line drawings, but some are executed in a more painterly manner, with different concentrations of black creating both a surface and structure of beguiling depth. In Fiend, 2001, for example, what initially appears to be a crude form reminiscent of the upper part of a figure is only revealed to be the black creature of the title when the viewer is close enough to touch the drawing. The Fiend - which bears more than a passing resemblance to Saturn in Goya’s painting of the God eating his children - is pulling his mouth open with his hands, as if ready to consume the viewer it has lured beyond the safe distance of the conventional gaze.
Mackintosh’s visual vocabulary appears familiar but simultaneously unsettling. The encyclopaedia of his visual concern sees the machinery of war placed next to scenes of the everyday, diabolical fiends next to doomed animals, and the natural world is often overwritten with misanthropic slogans. But where do these images come from? Mackintosh explains them as the result of a "stream of consciousness". During his studio sessions, he executes one drawing after the other, thereby almost emulating serial Surrealist techniques of providing a form for the unconscious. Mackintosh believes this method allows him to access imagery that social convention may lead him to otherwise repress. And although contrary to Salvador Dalí's stance, that there is a "complete absence of interpenetration between reality and images" , rendering them unrelated and incomparable, Mackintosh's drawings are very much rooted in contemporary reality. Images of a car crash, of a caravan, or a dead body may be inventions in the sense that they are not accurate depictions of factual events. They may be altered, simplified and composed, but they are still reflections on our environment and thus in their coalescence also create a picture of it.
This picture is, however, not a literal document. It includes some very personal elements, like dreams and fantasies. It does also not construct a continuous narrative, as Mackintosh's drawing is not a linear development of one theme or one story - unlike, for example, Charlotte Salomon's Life? or Theatre?, which tells a largely autobiographical story in a series of 800 paintings. These drawings have no order and there is nothing but the artist's word to identify their time of production and thus a direct pictorial and historical context. As a result, every drawing is unique and independent.
There are nevertheless some recurrent themes in David Mackintosh's work. Bodies feature regularly in his drawings, as do accidents and bloodshed, and when torsos are depicted, one can never be sure whether this is because of a limitation to detail or whether the drawings show severed and violated limbs. One drawing, Portrait of Enemy, 2003, showing a man in a suit sitting at a table, is even pinned to the wall with knifes, extending the violence and danger of being a knife-thrower's target from its representation on paper into the viewer’s physical reality. Another, of a little rabbit, is inscribed with "I am dead", thus counteracting the first harmless impression. On closer examination, the lines marking the fur around the rabbit's neck can also be seen as a necklace of barbed wire.

Mackintosh has described his interest in this reoccurring negativity as the result of his fascination with the human capacity for hatred. Black bombers loom in the sky; charred heads stare at us with vacant eyes; even a self-portrait of the artist shows him disfigured from being badly beaten. At a later stage some of these drawings are translated into other materials. Mackintosh executes them in fretwork or marquetry, intricately detailing the image on the hardwood board in different veneers. The legend ‘You are All Bastards’ is inscribed into a wooden panel above a picture of the globe. The prone figure of a dead man floats strangely in the limitless plane of another. In some of these pieces, Mackintosh creates three-dimensional objects out of two-dimensional planes, whereby the drawings' analyses of the environment again become new environments. In his recent installation Purgatory and Hell, 2003, the wooden panels were built into a space - and stage - for the cut-out figure of a pope, who seems to be bleeding from beneath his robes. In the reworking of the drawings in wood, Mackintosh plays with the prevalent notion that drawings are only a perfunctory medium, that they are only sketches. As sculptural spaces - or even just as single panels - he endows them with the weighty presence of skilled craftsmanship, without loosing the form and the ease of the original brushstrokes.

Occasionally, however, the sinister view on the world that dominates Mackintosh’s work is punctuated with lighter and apparently happier moments - it is not all "fucking & killing" as one drawing of a globe is headed. There is, for example, the perfect cipher for a carefree summer afternoon: a tree with a radio playing in the grass. Or the image of someone simply walking a dog. The drawing of a baby in a basket - which references the entire history of ideas and art, going back to Moses and the Egyptians - is simply one of the most recognisable images of innocence. But how do such images function within Mackintosh’s pictorial encyclopaedia? Are they the equal and opposite potential of a world all too often debased by the disease of destruction? Its idyllic alter ego? Perhaps so, but framed between the major and minor atrocities that dominate Mackintosh’s drawings, they sit in painfully sharp contrast - scenes of preternatural calm before the inevitably black storm, their innocence tainted with a foreboding sense of predestiny.

David Mackintosh's drawings are documents of our visual vocabulary; they trigger our collective memory: we have seen similar objects, situations and people before; we have sometimes even seen the graphic shorthand through which they are communicated on paper. His images are almost immediately readable: they respond to our experience of the world and also to mediated visuals, which over the times have been ingrained in our brain; they depict a section of our visual knowledge. A black patch next to the head of a figure lying on the ground will inevitably be read as a pool of blood and the person as dead, even though we might have never seen such a gruesome scene in real life. But it is clear that our visual memory does not only encompass what we have experienced or seen in reality. A large part of it is formed by exposure to the plethora of narrative images that saturate our culture; from the films we watch, the photographs we look at, the picture books and comics we devoured as children, the art we have seen. Even the continuously repeated myths of fairytales and legends leave a visual memory, as our imaginations create visual representations of what we hear and read. Thus, visual memory does not only comprise of facts, but also of fantastical creatures and improbabilities – the casual violence of a city beating mixes equally with the diabolical creatures of a thousand hells. And in the imagination, these images are no less real than reality - from which they can only be discerned by logic and a learned knowledge about the essence of reality.

David Mackintosh's drawings provide a pictorial encyclopaedia of these received images. They will mean something different to every viewer, who will integrate them in their own different contexts and perceive their own narrative connections between them, each adding a new layer of contextualisation to its entirety. His vocabulary will serve as a source for many new stories and many new allusions, as the cornerstones for personal narratives, and the sequences in dreams. But despite this democracy, Mackintosh’s fatalistic images are nevertheless reflections on our environment, and thus on society, as they are only possible through our expectations and experiences of the world. They are visual ‘objets trouvés’ that feed and feed on ourcollective visual imagination - the strands that weave the stories that are everybody's nightmare, but, perversely, are for all our pleasure.

Axel Lapp is a curator and critic living in Berlin.

                     Salvador Dalí, "The Stinking Ass" (1930): Lucy Lippard (ed.), Surrealists on Art, New Jersey 1970: 97-100: 98.