In Alice Macdonald’s colourful and gestural paintings, we see a combination of stylistic tropes from great contemporary portrait painters like Alice Neel with the idiosyncratic alchemy of Expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka, particularly in the rendering of the uncanny and psychological. By framing these expressive images in ornamental and illusionary details taken from the world of decorative framing, textiles and ceramics, Macdonald’s work is transformed into a new vision of contemporary portraiture, blurring the line between the imagined and the real. She notes: “I am attracted to the surreal, emotional, stereotypical and the cliché. I love mirrors and reflections and other opportunities for visual trickery – creating different layers of reality in one image, the opportunity for a double meaning.”
The artist often begins her process with pencil sketches drawing from memory as well as moments of observation, followed by watercolour studies. She reworks these compositions, adding and deleting elements until the composition is ready for the final oil painting. For certain works, Macdonald will take sections of smaller pictures and stitch them into larger canvases to create space around the image, playing with “the idea of a border or frame.” She also uses a rabbit skin glue to prime her canvases, mixing this glue with pigment. In some works the artist will add fabrics to the surface but notes as well that the final piece is often the result of a quick moving and intuitive painterly process.
Macdonald expresses her interest in “what it means to be human” contemplating the inner life of the sitter, or dynamics of family, well as history and culture. Macdonald notes she is intrigued by the enduring sameness of human emotion “love, jealousy, melancholy, and anger remain despite changes in fashion and technology.” artist notes that while she cannot know her sitters fully, she can use self-portraiture to grapple with larger questions of identity namely that of models of femininity. In these pictures she responds to the ideas of the feminine self, acknowledging how a patriarchal society has influenced her own self-perception: “I paint myself and other women as an examination of female experience, my relationship to womanhood and my received concept of femininity. It is an attempt to give form to elusive ideas and anxieties that I find hard to express in words.”
Macdonald's work is a dance between colour, decoration, observation and interiority. Her tactile approach to figural painting means the trace of her brush and pigment is readable across the surface, creating a world of haptic power that communicates not only the observed world but the inner life of her subjects. To this the artist adds ornamental or illusionistic elements that are wholly unexpected, allowing a new genre of contemporary portraiture to emerge, a story telling that exists between emotion and imagination.
Rosa JH Berland