Published  30/01/2002

Will Maclean: Driftworks

Will Maclean: Driftworks

Will Maclean’s exhibition, ‘Driftworks’ at Dundee Contemporary Arts is the finest exhibition by a contemporary artist in Scotland that I have seen in the 14 years I have lived there since coming from Australia. It coincides with the publication of the book, Will Maclean: Cardinal Points by Laurel Reuter of the North Dakota Museum of Art.(1)

Dundee Contemporary Arts
24 November 2001 – 3 February 2002
Laurel Reuter. Will Maclean: Cardinal Points. North Dakota: North Dakota Museum of Art, 2002. (ISBN 0943107121)


The publication consists largely of the artist’s own words to accompany the works that cover work on the subjects: sea reliquaries, emigration, arctic exploration, whaling and fishing, the melding of art and literature. Like the exhibition in Dundee at present, the somewhat understated format of the book in fact contains a wealth of information about Will Maclean’s fine painting and sculpture, his superb assemblages and the narrative that is ongoing between the made and found object; between word and image. Scottish mythology, autobiography moulded through the land and childhood, all contribute to his cohesive and dynamic oeuvre, yet it is also varied and poetic. In her foreword to the book, Laurel Reuter describes Maclean’s art as a ‘visual song of sorrow…Rooted in language and visual metaphor, Maclean’s art seems akin to a tone poem that has been a lifetime in the making…To really hear the song…to grasp its cadences, one must learn his country’s history beginning with the Bronze Age and continuing into the present with the construction of nuclear bases in the West Highlands. One needs to know what it has meant to be Scottish in the last centuries, and then, maybe, what it means to be human anywhere in a society of dispossessed’.(2)

Reuter, who was born a Wallace in the US writes with personal conviction about her Scottish ancestry and the parallels between the Scots removed to America as a result of the Highland clearances, and the dispossessed Lakota Sioux on reservations in Dakota where her family eventually settled. I myself write as an Australian McKenzie, whose family left the Isle of Skye in 1861; like Reuter, Maclean’s work strikes a deep and mysterious chord in my own inherited psyche. Indeed, his art has a poignancy for descendants of those thousands of victims of the Highland clearances who now, scattered around the globe, still feel emotionally struck by the beauty and sadness of those Western Isles, who four generations later carry a residue of the desolation felt by their dispossessed forbears. Fortunately, Maclean’s work does not limit itself to being a tragic requiem; the sheer beauty and poetry of his aesthetic and the refined rigour of his collecting of objects, tokens and totems is inspiring and informative. There is an emancipating mood in the physical manifestation of his work; for had Maclean remained bound by convention in aesthetic terms – had he painted and drawn in a realistic mode – he could have been emulating the work and idiom of William MacTaggart. However, the use of found objects – the surrealist predilection for free association – has meant that the knowledge and wisdom has a contemporary application.

Maclean’s narrative begins, geographically, in Scotland during the 19th century Highland clearances, but by virtue of the contemporaneous associations addresses the plight of dispossessed individuals in 21st century consumer society. His work is layered with references (literary and historical) which have ramifications in spiritual and personal terms. This state of flux is well exemplified by the video installation in the present exhibition, ‘Crux’ (2001 with Andy Rice and Gerald Mair). In this particular piece one experiences the ephemeral allusions of an abstract expressionist painting, the disorientation brought about through loss, and the inevitable coexistence of grief and enlightenment. There is also the sheer joy of the drawn and painted surface (magnified by the video process) so evocative of states of mind and change. In this and other works in the exhibition the process of metamorphosis from the inert found object to symbols of love and loss is most significant. They are images that allude to the ‘transience of human life and of the universal demise of once vibrant communities’. The actual movement of the video imagery reinforces the implied change that the original works on paper done in Italy in 1994 were perhaps intended to suggest.

Born in 1941 in Inverness, Will Maclean lives in Tayport, Fife and has been Professor of Painting at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee since 1994. He is, ‘best known for works that refer to the mythologies and lives of people who live and work by the sea. With material from the history of Scottish Highlands to Newfoundland in Canada, his works have regularly embraced diverse elements of ways of life now lost and only knowable to us through texts, images and objects left behind. The son of a harbourmaster, who grew up among fishermen, Maclean’s interest is both specific and universal’.(3)

Scottish poet Sorley Maclean observed that Will Maclean was acutely aware ‘that the local and contemporary and the present, and near and very distant past are in many ways continuous, and that the local and parochial are often poignant and universal’. His work, Sorley Maclean observes, is complex and subtle:
‘with its social realism transmuted with immanent religious and surrealist images, sometimes against a background of geology and archaeology, which adds to their universality and timelessness. To make a metaphor or another image a symbol and to do that unobtrusively or, as it were, unconsciously, is to my mind a mark of great natural power in any art.’(4)

Will Maclean is, as Sorley Maclean states:
‘a man who is consciously and unconsciously aware of the philosophy, literature and visual art that Scotland has encountered and produced from the Enlightenment and Scottish Renascence to the present day; of a man passionately concerned with the whole history of his country, especially with its tragedy, which is part of the tragedy of the world, and which transcends ‘any lines of territorial demarcation of the arts’. Never has a common ground between art and poetry been more necessary than it is today, but that necessity is timeless and universal.’(5)

Poetry has flourished in rural Scotland in modern times; yet with the notable exception of William MacTaggart, the number of painters who address Scottish issues such as those addressed by Will Maclean is very small. Duncan MacMillan points out that art is a more urban business than poetry, and while art has flourished in Scottish cities ‘life in the Highlands has been chronically dislocated’. Maclean has remained close to Highland life, and his art has been shaped by the landscape and sea as well as by the mythology and poetry; he particularly admires the poetry of Sorley Maclean. Maclean’s art is not nostalgic or self-pitying:
‘He should also be seen in the tradition of the Scots Renascence, however, in the way that his art relates the history and traditions of Scotland to the objectives of modernism. It should therefore be seen alongside that of Paolozzi, Davies and Bellany.’(6)

Like these artists, autobiography plays an important part in Maclean’s work. Paolozzi described childhood as one of ‘the last Magic Kingdoms’, the title of an exhibition he selected in the Museum of Mankind in 1985. Paolozzi combined artefacts of ‘primitive’ cultures with his own:
‘He was making a double point: an ecological one in which he demonstrated how we are all impoverished by the destruction of such cultures and also how this destruction in itself mirrors our ignorance of our own ‘primitive’ needs; needs which we still cater for in unrecognised ways, creating totems, fetishes and structures of magical belief.’(7)

Maclean’s ‘Memories of a Northern Childhood’ (1977) displays a set of objects that refer to his own childhood but also the society in which he grew up. References here include the sense of loss that all adults must experience in the memory of childhood, as well as the broader sense of loss at the destruction of once vibrant communities. The general is achieved through the particular.

‘This is not something nostalgic or sentimental, but is central to modern philosophy and is at the basis of modern art. It reflects the arguments put forward by Hume and Reid which had a far-reaching impact on European art, about the nature of experience and our perception of it. The basis of all knowledge and understanding, they argued, must be in experience and so it is only through the imagination that we can transcend this limitation to the subjective.’(8)

In the present exhibition Maclean’s on-going interest in the Highland clearances is displayed in ‘Journey 1 to 6’ (2000 – 01). Using an array of found and collected objects and images – postcards, photographs of ships (found, anonymous) – he evokes images of separation and loss. In Will Maclean: Cardinal Points, the poem The Loss of Gaelic: Sioldadh No Gaidhlige, by Meg Bateman is illustrated by an enigmatic and beautiful etching.

You gave me an intellectual grasp
of something unique dying out,
of a despoiling humanity
for which there can be no reparation…

An old woman dies at home,
your anchorage rope is fraying;
now I can see in your eyes
the heart-break of the matter.(9)

Maclean comments on his response:
‘This beautiful poem is an elegy to the loss of language. In almost total darkness a small light area reveals a fragment of landscape of sea and mountains. The centerplate, although closely worked with allegorical and symbolic images, is almost totally obscured by a dark ink wash.’(10)

St Kilda Song (1997) refers to the Outer Hebridean island, now a bird sanctuary, which was finally depopulated in 1930. Constructed with poetry printed onto transparent paper and applied in layers, the found or printed object is the basis of a new poetry of association. ‘The Surrealists developed collage, assemblage and the use of found objects…They had recognised that these new vehicles made it possible to bring together into a single image, things that could carry with them from their previous existence memories and associations, even as they become part of something new. This way of working becomes a metaphor for the way that in our experience present perception, memory, dreams and reality can all coexist and intercut.’(11)

Both Paolozzi and Maclean’s working methods and aspirations have been influenced by the Surrealist agenda. Both used intensely personal experiences as the starting point of their artistic and intellectual narrative. Maclean’s mixed media constructions are themselves sculptures of enigmatic beauty and superb craftsmanship. Maclean has long been interested in archaeology and while he was at the British School in Rome (for three months in 1966–7) he visited Etruscan and early Christian sites. His mixed media constructions are informed by methods and techniques of archaeology. The notion of buried meaning is transferred from found objects to constructed objects. The use of symbol and poetic association is also explored in a similar vein. Duncan MacMillan observes, ‘In archaeology, objects whose use may originally have been trivial or matter-of-fact assume a significance when seen in context, from which we can read something of a whole culture. His constructions often work in this way and frequently contain references, not only to genuine archaeological objects, but he also invents material and often combines fact and fiction to make a reconstruction, reinvented from his imagination, of something that might have existed – an imaginary museum piece such as ‘Museum Casket’ (1989)’.(12)

In the Dundee exhibition, each of the group of three sculptures collectively entitled ‘Atlantic Messengers’ refer to one of the islands of St Kilda, and also to the fulmar bird which played an important role in island culture (the feathers were exported to pay for rent; the oil was rubbed on the umbilical cords of new born babies).(13) ‘Atlantic Messengers’ possess a romantic and powerful presence; incorporating mahogany beams found on the shore as the central pillars, beautifully crafted fulmar eggs in resin (from those given to the artist as a child, from St Kilda) feathers and a small bottle of oil, these images allude to the communion with nature that Australian Aboriginal art – and indeed that whole ancient culture – is based on. The images of fishing and the sea belong to a long tradition in art and poetry – from Symbolist painters such as Puvis de Chavannes to the metamorphosis achieved by Miro. Where Maclean’s images suggest religious eternity on one hand, they also resonate with the impact of the dreadful and imposed collapse of fishing industries in both Scotland and Canada and the dire social consequences. In further works Maclean’s constructions present the weapons of modern whaling with a seering brutality. Far from being limited by the particular, these works allude to numerous experiences and many layers of meaning.

Perhaps the most significant new development in Will Maclean’s work is the use of video. ‘Crux’ (2001 with Andy Rice and music by Gerald Mair) has been developed from a series of drawings made in a priest’s house in Tuscany. In stark contrast to the severity of the Kirk in Maclean’s childhood, this work is a contemporary piece of remarkable beauty and spiritual association which sums up the integrity and personal vision of one of Scotland’s finest artists.


1. Laurel Reuter. Will Maclean: Cardinal Points. North Dakota: North Dakota Museum of Art, 2002. (This book is based on an exhibition organised by the North Dakota Museum of Art and the McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.)
2. Op. cit., p.1.
3. Dundee Contemporary Arts, Exhibition information.
4. Sorley Maclean, Foreword. Duncan Macmillan, Symbols of Survival: The Art of Will Maclean. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1992, p.7.
5. Ibid, pp.7-8.
6. Macmillan, ibid, p.9.
7. Ibid, p.49
8. Ibid, p.40
9. Meg Bateman, in Reuter, op.cit., p.46.
10. Will Maclean, ibid, p.47.
11. Macmillan, op.cit., p.35.
12. Ibid, p.18.
13. Will Maclean interview with Janet McKenzie, Dundee, January 2002. 

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