Stephen B. MacInnis
Spare Parts for Improvements
Review by Pan Wendt
Over the past 15 years or so, Stephen MacInnis has become one of the Island’s most recognizable and respected painters, with work showing at many galleries across the province, gracing the covers of books of poetry and, of the course, The Buzz. One of MacInnis’s achievements was the development of a personal style that combined saturated colours, patterned, flattened surfaces, and dreamlike scenes of figures in fantastic spaces that often made reference to the landscape of PEI. Although there was considerable variation among the various works, and the works continued to be compelling on their own terms, it nonetheless comes as a pleasant surprise to see MacInnis’s new paintings at the Guild.
This is an ambitious group of works, and MacInnis has set himself a major challenge by working in a much larger scale, placing life-sized figures against almost totally non-referential backgrounds. Clearly the new scale has forced MacInnis to adopt a more painterly mode, and he has set upon this task with considerable gusto, often through thick layering of paint and use of gestural brushwork. And by stripping down his format to a single figure against an abstract ground, MacInnis has made painting, and paint itself, an explicit aspect of his content. In addition, the new paintings engage with much more overtly gruesome and visceral subject matter the human body transformed through prosthetics, surgery, and modern forms of bodily imaging, such as x-rays. The figures in these pictures often appear as victims of cruel manipulations, and MacInnis’s comments, which appear on placards next to the works, suggest that he is deeply critical of the contemporary practices of bodily modification. This stance is undercut, however, by the clear pleasure MacInnis takes in manipulating the human body in paint. Even the most horrific works, such as Monster, of 2005, which conflates a puppet-like body, mask-like face, and various signs for bones with what appears to be a kind of insect-doll, reflects this pleasure. The surface of the monster is made up of layers of thick, opaque white paint, obsessively layered until it is redolent of roughly textured glazed pottery. In The Soldier, one of the most successful pieces, the faceless figure’s circulatory system takes on the character of a slow-drying glue.
The bold experiments don’t always work, which can be expected when a painter adopts a strikingly different approach for the first time. One wonders about the conceptual cohesion of work that comments on the contemporary world in a style that is so rooted in painting of the first half of the 20th century. MacInnis sometimes departs aggressively from his signature mode, as in the sketchy, abstract backgrounds and thick layers of paint. But at the same time he maintains his fascination with masklike faces, pattern-effects and strong design. Sometimes the ambiguity produced is powerful and productive, and sometimes it comes off as indecision. But I like the new, rawer and more declarative MacInnis, and I look forward to seeing more works in this vein.