In the postmodern present, the possible styles available to the painter seem endless, unbounded by historical imperatives. Bill MacDonnell ranges freely among this plenitude, juxtaposing and montaging various modes of representation and techniques in every painting. His goal appears paradoxical, yet epic. He seems to aim at nothing short of both violating the norms of unity and singularity of modernism while at the same time reaffirming or renewing the conditions of its production by re-situating it both historically and aesthetically. His tactics are, like his aims, dual, both witty and serious. They are based on what is technically called catachresis, or the misapplication of a term or sign through metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche and irony. The content he adds through these tropes may frequently be complex, involving double meanings and even humour, but it is always used critically and with precision.

MacDonnell foregrounds the free play of paradox in the image of a reflecting pool, centrally sited in End of Enlightenment, Lisbon, AII Saint’s Day, 1755. The limpid water is represented by multiple layers of clear gel. The process of application metaphorically suggests the passing of time, and the accumulation of a totalizing continuous history whose origins are always visible and whose links are always transparent. This reading is metonymically furthered by the fact that the image is appropriated from an Italian early renaissance fresco set in the Pope’s palace in Avignon, coming down to Mac- Donnell in present time through reproduction and art history.

Irony, however, interrupts this clarity. Following late medieval conventions, the orthagonals of the pool’s frame diverge rather than converge. This archaic denial of perspective is also its inverse, that is, a ratification of the modernist principle in painting of flatness and twodimensionality. Depth of history and space collapse into surface and artifice, throwing into question our present
assumptions of difference and sameness on which history and modernism are founded. Thus, if MacDonnell drained the pool of its original meaning, his recontextualization refilled it with importance for the present. By insisting on the painting process, the medium, the image itself and its history as joint vehicles for meaning, he reaffirms both modernist conventions of abstraction, and the western tradition of the pictorial. This synthetic relationship remains a key focus throughout his work.

These issues are cultivated further in the garden which surrounds the pool forming its context’ Here, he has rendered the trees and foliage in a manner that again contrasts and conflates the ideologies of the early renaissance and late modernism. By transforming the nascent realism of the original into the spontaneous flourishes of abstract expressionist aesthetics MacDonnell brackets the periods when pictorial space both appeared and disappeared, and establishes the parameters of his discourse. This use and abuse of stylistic conventions, of framing oppositions within each other, contains additional levels of signification which transcend a purely
phenomenological, experiential or formal reading. Indeed, this strategy forms the basis of MacDonnell’s critical stance.

Although MacDonnell incorporates gesture, his work cannot be confused as an outgrowth of neo-expressionism and the theories of Oliva and the transavant-garde which supported its development in Italy and Germany. This movement revived the abstract brushstroke as the timeless unmediated expression of the individualized artist as essential subject and author. It also advocated the confiscation of historical images and representations, making them palatable for present taste and fashion by disengaging them from their original context through a willful and regressive amnesia of both history and the avant-garde itself. MacDonnell escapes this impasse by ironically exposing both appropriation and gesture as neither timeless nor universal, but as embedded in history and convention. His critical expression of this mythologized naturalization lies in his representation of both literally as natute, thus showing, as Barthes pointed out, how culture can become a’second nature’, although it is anything but natural, becoming naturalized only if we consume its myths uncritically.

The exposure of the transavant-garde’s alibis produces a tension that disturbs the garden’s sublime tranquility. The sense of disruption is made literal both by the site of the original: Avignon, which represents the forcible decentering of papal authority from Rome, and by the date and place embossed on the lower edge of the canvas: Lisbon, All Saint’s Day, 1755, when a tragic and catastrophic earthquake occurred which demolished the Enlightenment’s and Candide’s belief in the best of all possible worlds.

Superimposing these two events had a dual function. It equates a political rupture with an arbitrary act of God, showing how one can be naturalized into the other, thus avoiding a moral dilemma or a critical historical stance. Yet the juncture, as with the renaissance pool’s apparent modernity, paradoxically reveals the gap all the more. The specific date and site also, in a metaphoric sense, break the illusion of timelessness. They warn against taking the allegorical garden, and painting itself, as universal, no matter how tempting this desire may be.

In other paintings, MacDonnell expands his iconography on precisely this point: he adds an opposing image to the garden/pool – a specific historic ruin or conflagration. In this expanded context, the landscape garden (or hortas conclusis) emerges clearly as a metaphor for ordet harmony, continuity, unity, a paradigm for the static, ahistorical, transcendent dreams of idealist modernists like Mondrian, Kandinsky, et al., in short for Utopia. Conversely, the precise historic locations of the ruins deny the traditional timeless, romantic, bucolic and nostalgic associations which they acquired in the picturesque. Instead they connote disorder, destruction, violence, loss, rupture and discontinuity, in short, tragedy.

A diptych, Conspiracy of Angels, 27 February 1933, may serve to introduce these dual themes and oppositions. The right panel contains a black outline of two mirrored chairs, rendered like the pool in flattened perspective, but extending from edge to framing edge. This image, which has played a role in MacDonnell’s work for several years/ serves as a paradigm for autonomous self-referential and abstract modernism. Equally, and typically of MacDonnell’s deliberate ambiguity, it also connotes the opposite, that is the possibility of supporting added content.

The ground on which the left side of this figure-without- figuration lies is covered with a rich factura, which resembles Malevich’s suprematist surfaces, while on the right side r /e see the thinly painted or stained efforts of late modernism. These historical references are not without significance, for they frame this aspect of Mac- Donnell’s discourse between two periods of the radical abstraction and reductivism and yet the works also reintroduce figuration and content.

The more complex left panel contains two contrasting images: the burning Reichstag in Berlin and a ring of angels dancing overhead in the rising smoke. The inflammatory nature of the first image is both literal and figural. It demands an historical confrontation, as does its realist style, since it signalled the triumph of fascism, the death of the Bauhaus, and constructivism’s utopian
aspirations, signified by a pedimented bungalow hovering on the side, and the beginning of the period in German history which neo-expressionism attempted to reassess.

The posture of the angels, however, postulates another possible response. Their withdrawn, self-contained, indifferent idealism introduces a new variant into the problematic: the clear opposition between an ahistorical modernism with possible transcendent, immaterial goals, which sees historical catastrophes merely as a ‘conspiracy of angels’, beyond the possibility of intervention, as acts of divine will, and a committed, engaged, political modernism which may find its model in Hans Haacke, where art abdicates the process of self-criticism of its forms and begins the criticism of the social context of its production.

This problematic gains poignancy when it is recalled that the angels have flown in from Sandro Botticelli’s apocalyptic Mystic Natiaity of 1500. This transcendent, millenial image, symbolic of the peace and eternity that lies beyond history, at the end of time, was created just after one of the most violent, repressive regimes of religious and artistic renunciation of the Renaissance: Savonarola’s brief tyranny, a subject that occurs in another form, that of-his burning, inan earlier MacDonnellwork. The parallels with the burning of the Reichstag are obvious, but are reinforced by the fact that a bungalow occurs in the same place in each. In each case, millenial, utopian ideologies take on a regressive and sinister tone, thereby again conflating the renaissance and the present period.

As in the previous painting, MacDonnell equates a collapse of history with a collapse of space to give the image a further ironic relevance to modernism. Despite the apparent realism and figuration of the angel’s corporeal bodies circling in space, here, as in the original, they deny western perspective and depth by shifts in proportion so that the angels in the rear are substantially larger than those in the front. And again as before, the juxtaposition of two eras of violence and transcendent escape, with two eras which denied pictorial space, points as much to their differences as to their sameness.

The complex of opposition and dualities which underline MacDonnell’s work now become clear. He systematically plays off the timeless against the historical, the transcendent against the material, the tragic against the utopian, the contemplative and melancholic against the active and engaged, nativities and beginnings against the modern. Yet these oppositions are not presented as structuralist boundaries beyond which one cannot pass without falling outside the discourse and hence lnto meaninglessness and irrelevance. Rather, by introducing a level of ambiguity, and showing how the same image and process of painting and montage can represent two
opposing ideas, he opens up these conventions to reinvestigation by providing a new critical distance and perspective. As in the case with Foucault and Derrida he indicates that something valid may lay outside the confines of the discourse as it is currently defined.

Having increased this distance, he may focus on issues closer to home without falling into narrow regionalism or nationalism. He introduces our cultural memory in 22 luly 1968./16 Nooember 1885. Again an image of modernism frames the discourse in the right haild panel featuring the flattened silhouettes of three tables, one of which is rendered in lead, and hence is impenetrable, opaque, entirely surface, and yet also suggests the alchemic notion of the transformation of materials.

On the left the neo-baroque facade of Saint Boniface Cathedral, which forms the backdrop of Louis Riel’s grave, is shown twice, both burning in the fire of 1968, and in its present restored form where, according to a postcard “a modern cathedral and forecourt were built within the walls of the ruin.” A rope descends the left side of the canvas terminating in a hangman’s noose. The whole is covered in an extended treatment found in the initial pool, that is, in multiple layers of clear gel, with all of its attendant meaning. Here, the past, stabilized and monumentalized, frames the new. The stark modernist architecture of the present cathedral is literally built within the preserved ruins of the old; historical links are made to appear transparent and established in the most literal sense. The old church, a ruin, is a synechdoche for its former self; the fragment stands for the whole which need not be reproduced to assert its authority so long as its memory remains totalized and reaffirmed. It may even change shape from the traditional to the modern. Thus a tragic loss, a possible historic and ideological rupture has been overcome and disguised.

Yet other histories are not so fortunate as to be reified in transforming images which remain both timeless and contemporary. Louis Riel’s grave site, literally outside the painting, yet implied by the inclusion of the date of his hanging in the title, and the noose, closed a chapter that is not re-opened or reproduced – a finality without renewal, a tragic end to this history. Critical questions are again raised about how history itself is both constructed and structured, and the ostensible neutrality of that production.

These dilemmas are also present in a related pair of paintings, the first of which is untitled, the second called Time to the Second. In Untitled, a blowup of Mondrian’s realist theosophic flower is contrasted with looming abstracted bombers hovering in a dark ground in the upper left. In Time to the Second, a ‘before’ image of the Hiroshima Industrial Promotion Hall, whose postatomic ruin has been preserved as a shrine to the catastrophe, is played against a burnt out foreground. Behind this, leaden clouds part to reveal a golden backdrop which duplicates in paint the gold leaf grounds of traditional Japanese screens. Not coincidentally in this context the chrysanthemum takes on not only an image of both the west and modernism, and the east and tradition, but also the contours of an atomic mushroom cloud.

The equation of theosophic mysteries with the achievements of physics, in conjunction with the alchemic elements of lead and gold in these two paintings again raises a moral dilemma, albeit this time over the value-free aspirations and professed neutrality of pure science, and its naturalization, which is occurring at present, into transcendent mysticism. Although biographic revelation is not the point here, the legitimacy of these images is reinforced by the fact that MacDonnell did his undergraduate degree in science before turning to art.

Two final paintings in the exhibition punctuate his aims and strategies. The Romance of Ruins (Reichstag) repeats the image of the building, as burnt out hulk together with the Botticelli angels on the black ground framed in a monochromatic pink border. The resulting black square within a square ironically mimics Malevich’s transcendent modernist image. Simultaneously, however, the border also points outward in an opposing direction, towards the material and ideological framework of the institutions and distribution networks which support modernism in the present. This mediating frame outlines the possible contradictions and conflicts within the value-free aspirations of painting itself and its role as a commodity. The pinkborder seems, in {act, to celebrate the painted object’s self-conscious awaaeness of its status is commodity fetish in this context. By making the issue explicit, by opting for a ful1 disclosure rather than concealment, MacDonnell avoids, or at least neatly sidesteps, a compromising posltion rn which much of the so-called new painting of the present finds itself.

A final key work, Three German ldeas, summarizes many of MacDonnell’s concerns. Here, the Reichstag, the Bauhaus bungalor,r’ and the Gutenberg press, with angelic wings, all float freelv on a iooselv painted gold and white ground. The images are separated yet linked by oval enclosures.

The accumulative metaphor is complex. MacDonneil states that the images collectively connote a will to order through reproduction, religion, and social, technological and political engineering. Here, the Bauhaus, as Utopian image, loses its appeal and appears as potentially dangerous as any other form of millenial thought. This compulsion to the overvaluation of order should not, however, be taken as a neo-expressionist dithyramb on Cerman national characteristics or heritage. MacDonnell’s vision is, as has been seen, more profound than this.

Rather, these images should be read as the idea of over-valued order in general, as an attack on all repressive and authoritarian forms of historical or cultural closure, particularly those that disguise both their means and their real ends.

The painterly ground on which these images lie also implies that MacDonnell’s ideas may equally be applied to painting itself and its history. The foregoing works suggest that modernist painting may well have reached the level of over valued order, even of hypostasization in its own preserved ruins. To the extent that it has been identified exclusively with Clement Greenberg’s theories, this may well be the case.

MacDonnell, however, suggests that other possibilities may exist if we allow this history to be both deconstructed and reconstructed. The route towards this new painting lies, for MacDonnell, neither in mannerism nor in a recapitulation of past styles, but rather through a Duchampian critical humour, in preserving modernism’s self-critical stance vis a vis both the forms and the institutions which support it. In Romance of Ruins (California) he extends the allegory to California, itself a metaphoric garden. In this painting, a profile of the Queen Mary is shown as a static mummified queen, literally wrapped in tape and preserved in aeternum as a cultural artifact and oddity. In a beautiful piece of irony, the shape of the boat closely resembles the shape o{ the initial pool, an unifying transformation of that-which-contains-water to that-which-excludes-water. In the sky overhead, Paperdolls replace the angelic throng. By turning the irony back on himself, MacDonnell allows for the humour required to keep these images and issues in perspective.

As do Duchamp’s readymades, MacDonnell’s work opens up both modernism and the western post-Renaissance pictorial tradition to re-evaluation. His strategies are like Duchamp’s, never arbitrary or violent. Rather, mainly through irony and allegory he explores the dualisms which have framed and confined the discourse of painting, and through double-meanings and
disruptions in this framework, exposed a realm beyond them. This process involves, simultaneously, the deconstructing of an old authoritative ordet, and the construction of new premises for viewing painting in both its past and its present.