Alexander McKenzie: Always a painter

Posted: 26 Jan 2010  |  By: Annemarie Lopez

In Nick Drake's song Could Have Been, the singer describes how he might have been a sailor or a cook, a signpost, or even a clock. But Alexander McKenzie has always been a painter.

In his studio in Cronulla, Sydney, McKenzie explains sheepishly: "I started at City Art Institute, which is now called COFA, but I dropped out."

A more confident tone creeps into his voice: "I knew from a very early age that I wanted to paint. But at City Art you were encouraged to - and in fact had to - explore a lot of disciplines. That wasn't for me because I just wanted to get on with painting."

McKenzie had his own purpose-built art studio at home from the age of eleven. "I suppose art was something already in my family. My parents drew and painted. My grandparents met at art college."

Alexander McKenzie, Island Rescue

After leaving City Art Institute, McKenzie studied at the Julian Ashton Art School before travelling overseas. "I did that typical backpacker thing, but in my case I was travelling around to visit galleries and look at paintings." McKenzie says he didn't make a conscious decision to be a landscape painter, but his focus on landscape emerged over time. "The first couple of shows I did were all paintings of fish," he laughs. "Then landscape seemed to creep in over the years and seems to have taken over." He experimented with abstraction and other styles at art school, but gradually found an approach that was able to express his unique vision. "I have a really good grasp on what I'm doing - a really clear vision of what I want. I can almost walk into a room and see the pictures hanging. But to bring that about in a physical sense is a long and difficult process because of the way I work."

McKenzie uses a traditional painting technique developed by the Dutch. "It's a very layered process with a very prepared surface. The canvas is sized with rabbit-skin glue, which is applied hot, then there is eggwhite primer and the building up of various layers, at a very large scale. There are a series of glazes. It can take a month to pull a work together." He chooses this labour-intensive, old-world approach ultimately because of the way it looks. "I love the patina of the painted surface."

Alexander McKenzie, Burning Tree, Exodus 3 (detail)

His work has been described as nostalgic or romantic, even allegorical or looking back to the Symbolist movement, but he is uncomfortable with those labels. "In a sense it is true, but it's not a conscious choice, more a reaction to an overwhelming need, a desire that pushes me to make an image - and that's what comes pouring out. To me, a style is not something you manufacture, it should just be what you are."

McKenzie likes to immerse himself in cool landscapes, and travels regularly to northern Europe, Tasmania, Victoria and the South Coast of NSW, but he is not a plein air painter. Verisimilitude or the representation of a specific landscape is not what interests him. "It's really when I get back into the studio that my recollections are distilled into some kind of image. If I think about it from a magical point of view, I'm summoning those memories in my painting."

McKenzie's works conjure moods and even narratives. "The story can change from painting to painting. But I think in a way it is like what is said of novelists, that they are retelling the same story over and over again. And if we think about it deeply we're probably telling our own story over and over again. Which is possibly all we can do."


There are no people in McKenzie's work, but there is often a suggestion of their presence, a trace of humanity. "I suppose what the pictures are about is some sort of struggle with the issues of the spirit, of mortality and direction. I contemplate all of those things, and the landscape is the natural place to contemplate them."

While his paintings of misty valleys, stark leafless trees and brooding skies can at times seem sombre, McKenzie believes all of his images are optimistic. "If I'm working on an image of rain or a storm, it's a clearing thing. A change is always positive, a necessary step on a spiritual journey."

Burning Tree, Exodus 3 (detail)

While he has always been very driven to paint and sure about what he wants to paint, McKenzie has struggled at times with his place in the art world. "For a long time, I thought my work was very old-fashioned because it wasn't cool or in vogue. I always felt slightly outside the box."

But on reflection he realised he was happy to make a place for himself beyond the vicissitudes of fashion. "Painting itself, by its very nature, is a singular, solitary existence. I never really felt comfortable sharing a studio. For me it was always about retreating into your own journey. To make art that is real and honest, it has to be true to your idea. There are a lot of artists who play the game and change their work to be fashionable. But to me that isn't getting to the point of why we make art in the first place."

Alexander McKenzie, Burning Tree, Exodus 3 (detail)

Luckily, McKenzie is stubborn. He painted for ten or fifteen years while working at menial jobs and sometimes questioned whether it was a good idea. But the desire to make images never deserted him. Then, after being spotted in an art competition in the UK, Rebecca Hossack's gallery in London began showing his work, and has represented him for the past eight years. "I went from making $2000 a year to actually being able to live from my work."

His latest show at Martin Browne Fine Art in Sydney is tentatively called Tending Trees. Deep in thought, McKenzie explains: "I'm interested in the metaphors associated with shaping and nurturing nature, how we are shaped throughout life to become us." If McKenzie could have been anything else, perhaps it might have been a tree.

Images from top:

Alexander McKenzie, Island Rescue, 2009, oil on linen 102 x 102cm.

Alexander McKenzie, Burning Tree, Exodus 3 (detail), 2009, oil on linen, 137 x 197cm.

Alexander McKenzie, Burning Tree, Exodus 3 (detail), 2009, oil on linen, 137 x 197cm.

Alexander McKenzie, Burning Tree, Exodus 3 (detail), 2009, oil on linen, 137 x 197cm.

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Issue 38