The Scottish-born, Los Angeles-based artist Euan Macdonald has a sharp eye for blind spots. His work is full of shadowy spaces that, when outshone by some spectacle, crest into invisibility. In his video The Shadow’s Path (2003), for instance, the artist turns his back on an extravagant sunset in coastal New Zealand, instead filming the gradual darkening of the land. Shot from a helicopter travelling away from the sun, the video gently floats above roofs and treetops as they slowly dissolve into obscurity. It is tranquil and meditative and entirely at odds with the blinding spectacle of the unseen sunset, allowing its presence to be manifested through the transient mark-making of shadow.
Strange then, that the newly commissioned work, which crowned Western Bridge’s minor survey of Macdonald’s output of the last decade, should be so ostentatiously physical, so imminently visible. Dominating the main gallery, A Little Ramble (2010) presents a towering, two-storey replica of a mountaintop. Impeccably constructed by a local scenographic shop, the mountain was flocked with sugary white fluff, from which the occasional crag peeked through, and presided over by a pair of taxidermied mountain goats. It was so imposing that it aggressively dictated how viewers moved through the space: the sculpture could not be circled entirely and one was made to look continually upwards. There is undeniable pleasure in encountering work so displaced and enormous inside a gallery setting, but Macdonald’s mountaintop, like The Shadow’s Path, is more interested in visualizing seemingly non-existent places. In Seattle, the damp, grey winter months shroud the peaks of the Cascade Range in cloud cover and Mount St. Helens – an active volcano 100 miles south of the city – has no top at all. A Little Ramble, then, reclaims one such mountaintop, but strips it of the sublime vistas that make such a site so breathtaking: the pair of goats simply stares out into sedate exhibition space.
The sprawling series ‘Selected Standards’ (2007) presents a similar problem: comprising 84 diptychs, Macdonald pairs sheet music covers from bygone pop standards with his own graphite drawings and photographs. That his images – a glinting disco ball, an owl’s face, twisting motorways, and so on – bear little resemblance to the standards’ titles or ostensible content is curious, until one begins to see the sheet music as clearly distinguished from the affect of the unheard music. After all, notation and printed lyrics cannot map out music’s inhabitable voids, those places where listeners hear their own experiences and feelings in the canned sentiments of lyrics and, by contrast, the ineffable contours of melody. The accompanying images behave like Macdonald’s deeply subjective approximations of the tunes, but remain, quite literally, dim sketches. But such shadows – the perceptible remnants of any phenomenon – are as close as anyone ever gets to the mountainously large sensation of beholding beauty.