Waving flags

David Mackintosh, from ‘The Glade’, 10 drawings, hardwood framework and gouache on paper, 2011. Image courtesy Chapter

Congratulations to Chapter for producing one of the most genuinely interesting interpretation sheets I’ve seen in a while. The Cardiff gallery’s material for their recent, commendable David Mackintosh exhibition featured a full essay by Martin Holman, and was a shining example of how to do exposition effectively, by opening up rather than closing down the range of meaning that the given works can be seen to offer. A little way into his discussion, Holman goes out on a limb compare Mackintosh’s work to ‘ships’ semaphore flags and forms of signalling at sea in which actions link up’, before noting,

David Mackintosh, ‘The Glade’, 10 drawings, hardwood framework and gouache on paper, 2011 (installation view). Image courtesy Chapter

Yet the drawings remain stubbornly mute. Physically close enough to illustration to connect semantically they remain several paces back from the brink of transmission. Why? Because they can!

Flag of Ciudad Bolívar. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Reading this was something of a watershed moment. Although Holman adds the caveat that ‘Mackintosh is not intentionally a maker of emblems’, I nontheless strongly suspect it to be viable, vital even, to read the drawings included in the Chapter show as tightrope-walking on the precipice of emblematics. It has a lot to do with the format and the method of display chosen for Mackintosh’s drawings – consistent, pure, grouped, marked by a steadfast syntax and mutable semantics. His works, in fact, beg the question: what turns an image into a symbol? What are the mechanics that transform a record of observation into a vessel for communication? These thoughts were no doubt prompted in some small way by the fact that a day or two previously myself and a friend had been weighing up the aesthetic merits of the design above, which, with its pared-down atmospherics could almost be a Bryan Winter abstract, but is in actual fact the flag of Ciudad Bolívar, capital of Venezuela’s southeastern Bolívar state (formerly known as Agnostura). It is, in other words, despite certain appearances (the free-floating forms and creamground colour are, as said friend highlighted, unusual in a flag) the sort of image where ‘colour is commonplace, clarity an advantage (but not a necessity) and space an invitation’ (Holman). The relation between appearance and function strains and stretches.

David Mackintosh, from ‘The Glade’, hardwood framework and 10 drawings, gouache on paper, 2011. Image courtesy Chapter

The process by which line, colour and form is translated from optical experience to emblematic vocabulary is, despite this emphasis on clarity and conventionality, full of mystery, resting on multiple and unpredictable contingencies. Could Mackintosh’s drawings, in spite of their aesthetic tactility and malleability, communicate in the same way that this flag communicates? Evidently, they could. One only needs to consider the evolution of Olympic Pictograms, with which Mackintosh’s images correlate somewhat, albeit in a manner that flags up the uniquely washy identity of fine art illustration when abutted with its commercial or industrial counterpart. The fact that ‘Mackintosh is not intentionally a maker of emblems’ then becomes a key to his work, teetering on the brink of inchoate communication, opening up a set of questions about image and meaning that may require more than a dissertation to resolve (perhaps Tom McCarthy will have some insight when he delivers a talk at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival entitled ‘Noise, Signal and Word: How Writing Works’). In place of that, I’ll be satisfied with conclude (for now) with a comparison that carries a great deal of weight coming from any Scotland-based writer. The experience of reading a David Mackintosh drawing is akin to the experience of trying to get to grips with those images created by Ian Hamilton Finlay image, which, wrapped up in an arcane and highly personal mythology that belies their explicitly emblematic appearance, frustrate the effort of the viewer to unravel some form of intrinsic hermeneutic value, but in a thrilling, enervating sort of way (at least, that is my experience). Both Mackintosh and Finlay beg a massive question, which is not one that I think can ever be satisfactorily answered: how volatile, how vaporous, is the line between communication and understanding?

Ian Hamilton Finlay, ‘Catameringue’ (Collaboration with Peter Grant), 1970. Image: tate.org.uk

By Luke Healey

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