Angus McDonald: Lessons of History

While there have always been elements of the metaphysical and the spiritual in Angus McDonald’s paintings, his recent work displays potent biblical and literary connotations that, Louise Martin-Chew discovers, extend his exploration of beauty, life and light.

Words: Louise Martin-Chew

Photography: Nikki Short

Angus McDonald’s new exhibition, Deluge, marks the beginning of his representation by Sydney’s Dominik Mersch Gallery and, at the same time, a slightly different approach to his painting practice. Deluge has biblical and literary connotations, from the story of Noah’s Ark to the poetic sense of renewal, a washing away of both physical and historical detritus. There has always been an element of the metaphysical that infuses McDonald’s paintings, an interest in light and its spiritual qualities and a homage to art history. Deluge sees these interests extended, with a blurring of abstraction and figuration within the paintings. He is also extending his long-term studio-based approach from interiors (to the beach and film), and using photographic shoots as a basis for a series of new paintings.

Photography, a tool he has used in the last seven years or so, has become an intrinsic part of the work for Deluge. Shoots for this exhibition involved his partner, models, a horse in a stable and friends. “Amping up the drama” in this work is driven by an idea or concept, which evolves in the process. Beauty, in the drape of fabric, the play of light, the form of the human body, are poignantly rendered in these paintings. A common thread throughout his career is, he suggests, an interest in rendering light, “the play of light over spaces and planes,” he says.

The seven-minute artist film titled Time and Memory uses the ocean as a metaphor for the passing of time. “The ocean is the same ocean the day that we are born as the day that we die. Our lives feel so big between those two points, but for the ocean, relentlessly pounding away as time passes, it is a blink,” says the artist. Divided into two parts, the film relates the cycle of a single day (dawn, day, evening, night) and then the cycle of a whole life, with its own dawn, morning, daytime, twilight and night. “I’m thinking, at this stage, of the two levels which exist in the cycle of life. We progress from the young and curious, through elation and joy, to experience trouble and confusion, mystery and pain and then, hopefully, resolution, wisdom and peace.”

Lessons of History is multi-layered, predominantly grey, with drips of paint, which run like tears down the paper. A woman, cradling a bare chested man in her arms, as though supporting him in water, has her eyes cast down. Light reveals the details of her face, lovingly rendered, the drape of the fabric and the man’s beard. The rest of their bodies recede into the watery greyness, yet ghostly forms hover there too, under the surface. This poignant image is tender, yet its lesson remains unclear.

The narratives that emerge tease away at the imagination, while the beauty in the image, vested in the play of light over fabric, the revelation of a face, takes us into its centre. Mortality, the poignancy of the moment and its capture are at the heart of his practice. “All my ambition is vested here, in the studio, making work I am satisfied with,” says McDonald, “I try to concentrate on what is essential to create the most emotion and achieve a sense of rightness in the pictures.”


Senior lecturer, theoretical enquiry, University of Sydney

Jacqueline Millner has a critical interest in beauty as an aesthetic experience and its role in a post conceptual world, including in the hands of a realist painter. Given the advent of the camera, the “death of painting” argument and the perversity of handcrafting realism, she was intrigued to note Angus McDonald’s approach and interests when she wrote about his work in 2006. It was at a time when “it was rare to find someone in contemporary practice who was interested in still life. And who was exploring beauty at a time when it had largely been banished from the scene.”

She notes the limited selection of objects he uses, their familiarity and restricted palette, and argued that this singular focus facilitated a deeper engagement with everyday objects for the viewer, so simple but with such intensity. Its beauty for the viewer, she said, nurtured “a regeneration of our engagement with the world” and a capacity, within contemporary art, to develop “that critical experience of beauty in art”. McDonald has, in recent years, incorporated the use of photography into his processes, a tool used to deepen and extend his interest in surface. Art historical references from European painters – like Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix inform the heightened drama in recent works.

“The intensity pulls on you as a viewer, to change your view,” says Millner. “The experience of these paintings takes you somewhere else, with heightened realism honing your viewing experience, you may see what you don’t normally see. McDonald’s work offers qualities that rest and refresh your vision.”

Director, Dominik Mersch Gallery

Dominik Mersch had taken an interest in Angus McDonald and his work for a number of years, noting the emotional resonance and intensity vested in his realist and evocative paintings. “Angus is a remarkable artist whose work I admire for its technicality, precision and appreciation of the sublime,” says Mersch. “He is curious and open minded in his practice, with international experience and influences, all traits that are complementary to the gallery’s ethos.”
It was the latter quality that was possibly most significant in terms of this new representation. Mersch is focused on a two way international exchange within the gallery’s program – and cites the “first ever cross-continental gallery swap” that took place between Sydney and Berlin in 2014. “Our Australian artists exhibited in Berlin where they were exposed to international audiences and curators beyond the context of art fairs.”

It is Mersch’s intention that his gallery “facilitates cross-pollination and cross-disciplinary practice between artists while placing them within the cultural critical context”. He also plans to introduce McDonald’s work to a new collector base, which may include exposure to international institutions.

Based in Lennox Head in New South Wales, McDonald’s studio-based paintings emerge out of what Mersch describes as a dynamic process, “a creative universe that is oblivious in some ways to the wider art world where I show my work.” Mersch adds: “Angus’s signature romanticism and bold aesthetic tropes are emblematic of an Australian lifestyle and are transformed into a compelling and symbolic body of work.”

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 73, JUL – SEP 2015. 


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