Unreal Landscapes: Alexander McKenzie’s ‘The Cairn’

Alexander McKenzie, An Enclosed Garden, 2013, oil on linen

Alexander McKenzie’s paintings are like snapshots from a Technicolor dream. Vogue Living’s Dijana Kumurdian caught up with the Sydney landscape artist to talk about his new show at Sydney’s Martin Browne Contemporary, and how he was inspired by imaginings of the terrifying sublime.

Sydney artist Alexander McKenzie always knew he would become a painter. There was never any choice in the matter – it’s all he has ever wanted to do. Having his own makeshift painting studio at age 11, and purpose-built version in his parents’ backyard by late high school, it’s unsurprising that McKenzie now puts paint on canvas as a full-time job.

The six-time Archibald Prize finalist’s latest series, The Cairn, evokes the infinitesimal, the dreamlike and the sublime: his telescopic detail and precision figuring of uncanny landscapes are staggering when viewed in the flesh, the latest of which are currently on show at Martin Brown Contemporary in Sydney’s Paddington. Scroll down for the full interview.linebreak

Alexander McKenzie, To The Pleasure Grounds, 2013, oil on linenlinebreak

Dijana Kumurdian: Could you tell me a little bit about your background?

Alexander McKenzie: I grew up always wanting to be a painter, I had my first makeshift studio in my parents house at age 11. In fact they ended up building me a purpose built studio in the backyard when I was in high school. I dropped out of art school (COFA) in the first year because it was too diverse. All I wanted to do was paint; I never had a plan B.

VL: What is your process typically like?

AM: My work over the years has developed into quite a long and layered process. The painting itself is made up of numerous layers: sketchy under-painting, multiple layers of body colour and glazing – all of which need to dry in between being worked on. The paintings take an enormous amount of time to be completed – anything from 2 to 6 months.

VL: What inspires your work?

AM: Many things; the imagery comes from travel, from memory, from really looking at the landscape. I don’t make sketches or record the landscape with photography, so the paintings develop with a kind of selective recollection, my visual memory tends to regroup the images so they become a version of reality, but never an actual place.

VL: Tell me about your upcoming show, The Cairn.

These paintings are a group of works that I began late last year. They continue my exploration of an increased narrative taking place within the picture.

VL: How did the Romantic concept of the sublime influence you and your work on The Cairn?

AM: Cairns are ancient symbols, mounds or piles of stones, stacked on high mountains that serve multiple roles, they mark boundaries, are used to navigate and are monuments to the dead. I love that they are important in life as in death. Painting for me is incredibly contemplative and meditative, the process itself allows me to immerse myself in my own thoughts, [and] it is in these moments that I think on these things – the duality of life, how it can span from the heights of sublime wonderment yet sink to the lowest terror and horror. Our path through life is my continual battle. The Cairn becomes one of the many symbols of our need for guidance and direction.

Alexander McKenzie, Double Aisle, 2013, oil on linenlinebreak

Alexander McKenzie, Guide Rope, 2013 oil on linenlinebreak

VL: You’ve been a finalist in the Archibald Prize for a few years running now. Who was your favourite subject so far, and who have you always wanted to paint a portrait of?

AM: I have loved painting all of my Archibald subjects but I guess really felt a connection with both Richard Roxburgh and Andrew Upton, both artists that I admire enormously for their creativity as well as individuals that are well grounded and have retained a real sense of themselves. Last year’s painting of Toni Collette was a dream subject, another actress whose work I love!

VL: What projects have you got coming up?

AM: I have just been commissioned to paint an enormous picture for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It’s part of the renovation of the First World War galleries and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, in 2015. The painting is so big I will be headed to Canberra for a few months to do it onsite.

Alexander McKenzie’s The Cairn is on show at Martin Browne Contemporary until 15 September.

Words: Dijana Kumurdian
Images courtesy Alexander McKenzie and Martin Browne Contemporary.

4 Responses to “Unreal Landscapes: Alexander McKenzie’s ‘The Cairn’”
  1. Antonia Frew says:

    These paintings are so beautiful, there is a surreal,, spiritual and magic quality to them.

  2. Laura Rogers says:

    Reblogged this on Mango Moments and commented:
    I wanted to share this blog… I saw an exhibition of Alexander Mckenzie over a year ago with some very dear friends…. and his art was massive in presence and effect….

  3. Simone says:

    Just went today to the exhibition.
    I have to say, these paintings, in the flesh, are Absolutely stunning!
    They are huge!!!! And so much more beautiful in real life!

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  1. […] Alexander McKenzie’s latest exhibition of sublime oil paintings, The Cairn, is on now at Martin Br… […]

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