Cities in a Suitcase: Works on Paper by Landon Mackenzie

Landon Mackenzie, Paris Looking North (Pink Paris), 2009, watercolour and ink, 19.6 x 26.6 cm. © Landon Mackenzie

When Landon Mackenzie creates one of her large-scale oil paintings, she starts with canvas laid out on the floor, later transferring it to stretchers and setting it upright. Similarly, when working on paper, she begins with each piece flat on a table, often in a hotel room or a borrowed studio in a foreign city. After moving it to a wall, she continues adding watercolor or ink before slipping the final painting into a suitcase.

Landon Mackenzie. Parallel Journey: Works on Paper (1975–2015), on view at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, features a selection of smaller paintings by the artist. Most of these have rarely been on public display — unlike her large-format oil paintings, which have been acquired by private and public collectors around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Mackenzie was a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in the 1970s, during its Conceptual Art heyday. Following NSCAD, she earned an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal, winning the third biennale of Quebec painting, Création Québec 1981, for her critically acclaimed Lost River Series. Currently based in Vancouver, she has been teaching at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design since 1986.

Mackenzie’s works on paper aren’t preparatory sketches or studies for her massive canvases. Instead, they reflect a parallel practice to her large-format painting — one with a related but distinct trajectory.

Landon Mackenzie, Untitled (Rail Yard, Tracks Pointing East), 2013, watercolour, 48.2 x 69.2 cm. © Landon Mackenzie

“I thought of my works on paper as little things I was doing ‘on the side’ for decades — ‘Sunday’ paintings; something I’d do when I was somewhere else, away from my studio,” said Mackenzie in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Then I realized that these smaller pieces on paper were a major constituent of my art oeuvre.”

Kelowna Art Gallery curator Liz Wylie, who put together the exhibition, describes Mackenzie’s images as expressing multiple meanings, spontaneous energy, and process-oriented making. “Mackenzie’s strengths as an artist,” Wylie has written, “are her inventive energy, her intellectual restlessness and curiosity, her love of imagery, maps, language, and history, and her determination to keep working in the face of frowning would-be authority figures.”

The exhibition includes drypoint etchings from Mackenzie’s student days at NSCAD. Also included are small oval watercolors made during the 1990s. “They filled in gaps in The Saskatchewan Paintings, a series of large synthetic polymer works on canvas,” says Mackenzie. “The watercolours were necessary because there were gaps in the story of the Prairies. The colonial record was incomplete; it was a troubled narrative.” The works, many in black paint, represent the historical void created by the erasure of First Nations voices in the mainstream narrative of settlement.

Landon Mackenzie, Untitled (Berlin), 2007, watercolour, 22.8 x 30.4 cm. © Landon Mackenzie

Later works were largely created during residencies in Berlin and Paris. “In new cities,” says Mackenzie, “I experienced new colours, textures, temperatures. The food and the people were all new. Then I’d go back to my little hotel room or borrowed studio to download all those impulses onto paper with colour — all the information and experience.”

Mackenzie does not paint directly from observation or from photographs; instead, she draws from memory or impression. Much of the information she absorbs comes from her travels. Paris Looking North (Pink Paris) (2009), for example, is a colourful, multilayered map. Many of Mackenzie’s works feature several layers, allowing various types of information to be mapped, from the physical to the narrative.

Similarly, Untitled (Berlin) (2007) appears as though a web had been thrown over a star map. “It looks like a nerve diagram, an MRI scan, points on a map, points of energy connected, a web of energy," Wylie notes. “All of these interpretations are correct, and they all coincide.”

Landon Mackenzie, Untitled (Blue Stairs), 2007, ink and gesso, 47 x 55.8 cm. © Landon Mackenzie

Another of Mackenzie’s Berlin works, Untitled (Blue Stairs) (2007), is based on her various stays in Berlin over several years, during which she explored the city’s railways and neighbourhoods to discover its complex history. “I was often there during a bleak time of year, isolated, reading novels set around the war,” she says.

According to Mackenzie, a successful painting is one that surprises, tugging at the viewer’s curiosity, or eliciting a moment of recognition. Her works on paper are exuberant in their ability to astonish, and compelling in the questions they raise. Any viewer familiar with the history and landscape of Canada or the streets of European capitals will find their own maps layered into Mackenzie’s work.

Landon Mackenzie. Parallel Journey: Works on Paper (1975–2015) is on view at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, until September 25, 2016. The exhibition will be one view at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from January 13 to April 9, 2017. It was originally curated and presented at the Kelowna Art Gallery in Kelowna, British Columbia.

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