Canada : Euan Macdonald


If brevity is the soul of wit, I propose that it is also the heart of profundity. Like humour, deep thoughts are best communicated as concisely as possible. In fact, economical delivery or presentation can heighten the impact of any message. Because of the times and places in which we live, we have become so comfortable with proliferation that simplicity can be shocking. Less is often so much more.

Simplicity is the tenuous state in which nothing can be added and nothing taken away without losing the possibility of conveying meaning in a powerful way. It is equilibrium between inclusion and reduction.

I introduce these ideas because Euan Macdonald's work rests easily within this equilibrium. His artistic output also happens to be both witty and profound. His videos, paintings, drawings, sculpture and sound works are far from basic, but everything about the work addresses simplicity. The pared-down quality that runs throughout is so prevalent that it is more than a formal device : it becomes subject matter in itself, on a par with the content being presented. He is not a minimalist but, rather, extremely adept at isolating ideas, honing their essence to a single gesture and working through a series of investigations with them.

For Macdonald, each medium is relevant and important for precisely the qualities that make it unique. In the case of video it is the ability to exploit technology in order seamlessly to repeat an event over and over; with painting, it is the static, screen-like potential on which the artist can document the traces of a repetitive gesture. Macdonald's drawings succinctly isolate big ideas in a seemingly effortless way, to which drawing as a medium is well suited.

Concepts central to his practice such as memory, meditation, duration and boredom, as well as simplicity, are ideally acted out and explored in his endlessly looping video pieces. Each video depicts something in real time, from a fixed angle - a car, a shadow, a pair of airplanes - in states of recurrent motion. And although a similar, simple, system - movement - is acting upon each of these objects, the connotations or effects are extremely varied. This is a testament to the artist's selection of provocative subjects and the simple tricks that each "performs" for the camera. One is compelled to watch for longer than intended, partly because the images become hypnotic and rather soothing in their predictable repetition, but also because there is always the lingering expectation that perhaps there will be a disruption in the activity or a conclusion to the endeavour. (I will spoil the ending and reveal that there never is.)

As is true for so many artists of Macdonald's generation (Gabriel Orozco, Douglas Gordon, Georgina Starr, to name just a few), this work contains reference to videos by Bruce Nauman, a master of the simple, profound gesture. While Nauman documented many mundane activities, most of them focused on his own physical behaviour in his studio, Macdonald looks beyond his own body for inspiration from culture, nature and the everyday. He also carefully controls his investigations, often with the assistance of digital technology. Yet the work isn't about trickery, although there are magical moments where illusion and reality are blurred. It ultimately doesn't matter how the effect is made but what it implies and how we interpret the information. In direct opposition to the cliché "life is short," Macdonald makes us realize that sometimes life actually feels quite long, implying that there is time (and value) in simply doing nothing.


Excerpted and revised from Pamela Meredith, "Keep it Simple," in Euan Macdonald/Recent Work, Oakville, Centennial Gallery, 1999.



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