Photography's third dimension
Interview with performance sculptor,
A performance sculptor is the prefer label that London based artist William Mackrell, 39, uses to describe himself. His uniquely inspired works that include backs of heads and armpits, are causing waves in Europe and the USA, and I discover why in an exclusive interview.
"I’m very interested in the idea of allowing the eye to go into the work. For me, it's like seeing electricity."
William Mackrell is certainly an artist who works with many layers and across many levels, embracing sculpture, photography, performance and drawing. With time and effort being essential ingredients for his output, performance sculptor is his stated label of preference. In our interview, I unpeel the layers to reveal a sweet madness combined with unmitigated dedication and unadulterated talent.
Mackrell's atelier is nestled in a peaceful oasis amid the urban clamber of north London's Finsbury Park. I arrive in chilly mid November with gallerist Mark Lungley who showcased Mackrell’s work at Liste, during Art Basel 2022. Mackrell’s warm and welcoming demeanour immediately puts me at ease enabling our nigh on three-hour marathon interview to proceed with effortless ease.
Mackrell leads us through the labyrinth of corridors of the plain municipal-looking building that secretes and quietly helps nurture this emerging artist. As we venture further in, the building surprisingly takes on a homely, almost cosy atmosphere. We enter into a generous space that is Mackrell’s inner sanctum of imaginativeness.
Filtering the noise
‘In the past, I’ve been in studios where I’ve had the constant feeling that someone’s going to reclaim the building and we will have to leave," says the softly spoken Mackrell. "I’m renting from someone who may well return soon from Marseille but at the moment I’m happy that they’re there and I’m here. It’s a sanctuary to come back to, where I can lose myself in my thoughts and disconnect from the sound of the city. A lot of my work is about filtering out noise and looking in detail’. That‘s the haven that I need to be creative."
Recent body of work
Mackrell’s recent work was presented in a solo show at Liste, during Art Basel 2022, through Lungley Gallery based in London. The epic scale and vibe of the art fair left its impression on Mackrell.
"Being part of it was amazing. I like the variation of how people behave towards art. It becomes part of the work and ones senses are very much present in the experience," enthuses Mackrell.
His relationship with Lungley Gallery is a close one, with artist and gallerist focussing intensively on the etching body of work. "We talked a lot about how we wanted to take the works from being readable portraits into zoomed into images, These conversations came about very organically without forcing it", commented Mackrell.
The focus of Mackrell's current body of work is hair etching which he describes as an evolution from his previous performance work from which he had started to gain recognition. With the etchings however, we observe an artist who has taken the discipline of surface scratching to the point of obsession whilst producing works that shout utter brilliance.
Early collection successes
And it seems his artistic 'mania' for lacerating photographs has captured the imagination of art crowds on both sides of the Atlantic with current pieces entering museums in the US, the UK and Israel. "The Albright-Knox Art Gallery Museum in Buffalo, bought a nice collection of my drawings and presented Gulp in their show, says Mackrell. "Unfortunately they only bought one piece.The Israel Museum, in Jerusalem held a show entitled 'Bodyscapes' and they included a piece of work which they subsequently bought for the collection."
"Manchester Art Gallery here in the UK has a few pieces in their beautiful pre-Raphaelite collection and my series of hair etchings was shown within the theme of Samson’s hair being cut off.
Goldsmiths bought one of the Degree Show pieces which was great and helped pay for university fees. It feels like something is moving!" He exclaims.
Mackrell was born and raised in London and studied painting at Chelsea College of Art and Design (2002-2005). He later went on to do a Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London (2014-16)."
Although he is certainly a multi-media artist, he began with painting and photography followed. " "The earliest pieces were self-portraits. I started photographing individuals who were close to me. They were portraits of the backs of people's heads. And I did a self study of my own head, the top, sides and back. I was always interested in the back of the head as a vulnerable spot that you couldn't see with your own eyes, unless you had a mirror or a camera or another person there. It evoked an interesting idea of reliance on another."
Mackrell evolved further into photography, installation and video, but states that there was always a 'painterly' influence on everything he did. "I just couldn't find my way with canvas and brushes. Although I really enjoyed it, I wasn't getting close to what I wanted to express with my work. It took me a long time to come back to it".
I was discovered through a show at Dundee Contemporary Arts called 'Infinite Test'. I had done a piece called ‘A thousand candles’ for which I set up thousand tea lights on the floor of my studio and filmed it for as long as it would stay alight. I was very curious about the language of light which is the bedrock of all my work. The theme of light and darkness even now pervades these current works", he discloses.
From 2015, after taking on jobs working for artists and as studio assistants, Mackrell started to work increasingly with galleries and museums and in the last two or three years, things started to take off with institutions such as Manchester Art Gallery, Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna The Ryder in Madrid, Musee Delacroix in Paris and Lungley Gallery in London.
"Ursula Krinzinger who's now in her 80s has been running Krinzinger Gallery in Vienna for about fifty years. She taught me a lot and brought me in to the gallery through a residency programme in 2013 and 2017. I’ve been one of her artists now for the last three or so years. They give me beautiful support. I will be working towards my second solo show with the gallery as a follow-up to my first in 2019 entitled 'Here is where we meet'. It's also been amazing to work with a gallery like Lungley. We are growing this together and working very closely. It's a partnership."
There is always a sense of London in his works, Mackrell tells me. Revisiting this sensation, he reflects on being stuck behind people’s heads in densely packed buses and tubes during the London rush hour or amongst people or at a festival.
He tells me that to avoid eye contact with people, he started going into the world of hair. "The sound, the sweat and the sexuality of the hair, even the way everyone shapes, colours or moves it differently, gave me an itchiness and crankiness. I felt that there was a whole possible world that I could explore."
Rage, Rage against the dying of the light
Rage, rage against the dying of the light', is a substantial body of work produced by Mackrell in 2020. Developed on residency with Launchpad in rural France spent amongst fields of sunflowers, Mackrell protests against man's relationship with the environment. Here's an except from the story he recounted to me.
"I watched how the farmers tore them to pieces with the combine-harvester. The whole process was quite brutal, resembling a battlefield in my eyes. Before some of them could be taken down, I uprooted them and took them back to my studio where they lived with me during the residency."
"They were at the end of the sunflower cycle before being turned into oil. The heads couldn’t hold the weight of the seeds and they started to pour on to my studio floor. I gathered them up and poured them onto paper."
"I made pigments and paints and wanted to see if the sunflower seeds would settle on the paper to be almost frozen in time. But the seeds started to fall off the surface of the paper as they dried, leaving their traces, shapes and shadows on the paper. I wanted to create the sense of a coppery, silvery look to evoke the idea of an industrial machine breaking through the landscape."
“There was something metallic about the way these machines were cutting through the dense forest of sunflowers.”
"My project with sunflowers was about recapturing something in nature. It became a whole body of work around a fictional character called Sunflower Melatonin. I had sleep trouble at the time and started to see sunflowers walking at night and looking for the sun. Keeping them in my studio, I felt I was saving them from being mown down. I became a sort of guardian of the sunflowers. It evolved into my 'Rage' series which had the text 'rage, rage against the dying light' etched with a needle through the whole photograph. The rage is their anger about being taken from the light. I used the moonlight to get a black and white exposure of the shapes of the flowers."
"Their rage is their anger about being taken from the light!"
"I returned to London to finish the piece and then it developed into rage, rage against Brexit as that was evolving at the time, and playing through the radio in my studio. The work ended up taking four months to finish. There's parallels with the hair series because they are both quite detailed and densely focussed and have an insect look. But there's also a connection with hauntology in which I'm also interested, that something was there and now it's gone."
"I started to see the sunflowers as a Sumatra-like creature and not a product that would be processed into oil. I imagined this because of the Sunflower's whole posture and rhythm of rotating its head towards the sun. turning its neck like a supernatural being."
"Nature has a beef with humans."
"I wanted these works to keep their memory alive, but also to start something quite new and sentient. Their death was the moment of their revival. That's always really important in my work. The impression is not just supposed to disappear in the misery of what's going on, it should have some form of uplifting feeling."
"So now I'm working with plant based structures as bodies alongside my hair theme. In terms of the process, it all seems to start with nature. Nature has a beef with humans. But I don't think all humanity. Things are grown then obliterated. Just like the machine was cutting through the field of sunflowers. It's symbolism for what happens between humans and nature. Even though that’s how we harvest the fruits of nature. Their memory lives on."
Depth, breadth and time
The earliest pieces were quite dense. Mackrell can spend up to twelve hours a day in his self-imposed toil, gouging away the surface of photographs, causing a tension in his hand that seeps through to the work and forms variations in the markings.
"For me it's not only about scratching away the surface of the photograph to reveal a mark, he says, "it's also about depth, breath and time spent."
"There are days when your hand is looser and you feel like you're finding a rhythm with the work, and other days when you feel you're fighting against it.
I can find I’m literally pushing into the paper more and you can actually see some of that tension in the piece. I like that variation that enters the senses and into the marking, and, as a consequence, become part of the work as well."
He points to a piece displayed in his studio which he describes as having a charcoal look in some areas due to the pressing and the turning of the hand on the image or due to tension. "There is a madness involved in spending so much time, to the extent that I can’t separate my hand from the needle I use", he admits.
Trapped in colour
As we continue to talk, further insights emerge. "The images always appear as greyscale although they are actually colour photos originally. If you look very closely at some of the pieces, you can see there's a pinkish hue or a slightly magenta or greenish colour. "
He continues, "I'm also interested in the idea that some of the colour never actually leaves and becomes trapped in the image, begging the question, is it or isn't it black and white? Is it colour?"
Perhaps this playfulness that Mackrell exhibits is linked to surrealist influences such as the pioneer photographer and contributor to the surrealist movement, ManRay.
"My works can be read as quite grotesque, states Mackrell "but it could also be read as very seductive. I feel sometimes there's a play on emotions, and one wonders what is really going on. There's also something unsettling about the scratchings, he continues, "and I start to think about how the body changes as it ages and removes hair while it does so.“
There is certainly a shock element to Mackrell's work but holding people's attention is of extreme importance to this artist not only because it enables the eyes to spend time with the marks but also because, as he insists, the works deserve to be consumed at a slow pace.
This is in fact Mackrell's response to the pervasive culture of instant gratification that encourages us to flit over images quickly on social media and in the street. "I like the idea that we're reversing that language with photography, says Mackrell. "Slowing down and allowing the eyes to look if they want to look. This is important because the process of the scratching is slow."
Transcending the image
Mackrell is also interested in how an image can transcend the original idea, seeing this as part of the experience. "Although this image, he says pointing to one of his key works from Liste, "might be a man’s chest and neck, I feel it could also become a cliff or sea. I’m interested in how the human body can take on fantasy perspectives."
"By becoming unspecific, he elaborates, "the image is no longer distinguishable so the audience or viewer feels compelled to step in and take their own world and experiences into that image. For me it’s important to allow people to to enter the space and to contemplate what it is.”
Liste Art Fair, Art Basel 2022
"At Liste, we thought about how vulnerable the body has become, particularly in times such as during COVID, when countries were experiencing the craziest situations. We wanted people to feel invited to come up close to the work and really spend time with it because COVID had pushed us all far apart",explains Mackrell.
"Up close with all these cropped bodies, we hoped people would start to question whether they were actually bodies, whether they were alive, whether they were they real, the scale they were looking at, the time the bodies were living in. And then suddenly it might become for them a landscape created by the architecture of the body."
"We also wanted to bring the sense of vulnerability and destruction across," Mackrell expands. "The human condition is under threat. It can be argued from all different points of view but as a totality it's a very fragile place at the moment and I try to discuss some of that with these works. Not directly, but it comes out in the process of the work and how the body is presented."
"From a distance, Mark Lungley wades in," you’re never quite sure what it is that you’re looking at. It’s only when you are up close that you suddenly have an idea of the technique that Will has been pursuing through this obsessive scratching away at the surface of these photographs."
It’s a challenge to get attention in an art fair when you’ve got so many things screaming for it. To invite people up close, and to see their imagination triggered into realising 'Oh my god this is actually a body part and what body part?' It's quite something!" Mark enthuses.
Mackrell's scratching is his secret power through which he transforms photography into a sculpture, infusing a magic into the image and taking it well beyond its original form.
"The density of the scratches makes it more of a sculpture than a photograph and that fascinates me profoundly, says Mackrell. I imagine the hair as a three dimensional object."
"The image remains important, he continues, "because it forms the basis of the composition. However, activating the surface through the etching creates movement in the works which takes it to another level. The image becomes electric-like, more alive and tactile as the scratches dance in front of the eye, coming in and out of focus," raptures Mackrell.
Loving the paper
Mackrell explains that the scratches are highly interwoven, which gives the works a textile quality. "It is paper, he stresses, and you have to spend time with it and get to know it. A relationship is formed with the paper based on how you look after it. It can all fall apart quite easily as the works are quite fragile, not only as a subject matter but also due to the paper itself. You are taking out almost all of it and what's left is only just holding together."
After his intricate toil, the finale is for Mackrell, to mount the finished piece, preserving it ready for archive.
"I discovered the photographs became more sculptural, after taking them out of the frame because I could get even closer and the scratches protrude even more"
Asked in which direction he would like to develop his work, Mackrell replies:
"I think future work will still develop in parallel with current projects because I feel one body of work influences another. A new step will be to produce etching in colour. This is going to evolve in a big way. I think I'm going to go quite colourful!"
And with this vast interview complete, my thoughts are clear. Mackrell's work is incredibly arresting on an aesthetic level, but it also forces us to stop in our tracks to observe, to consider and to contemplate life more slowly. It allows us to play our part as co-creator, and in so doing, serves us on a deeper and more intimate level than we could ever have hoped for or expected.
For further information about Will Mackrell visit lungleygallery.com