Scenes from Old Europe

Time takes a tea break with Dougal McKenzie

'Trying to put a pin in time,' the old saying goes, 'is like trying to pin jelly to the wall'.

A dreadful cliché, perhaps, but one that Dougal McKenzie's grandfather would have appreciated.

A crane operator and photography enthusiast from Leith, Edinburgh, his workaday world of the Scottish docks was illuminated by explorative journeys to Europe, always with camera in hand.

The images produced by these trips have jumped across two generations and relocated in present-day Belfast, where McKenzie has used his grandfather's slides in a series of collage paintings which hang not behind glass or in frames, but pinned to the wall.

'I've always been interested in the relationship between photography and painting,' says the Edinburgh-born McKenzie.

'It's an old thing. For as long as photography has been around, people have been talking about the differences between painted images and photographic ones.'

In addition to this relationship, ideas of time, history, narrative and perception are long-standing thematic concerns for the artist, with the eight images in Scenes from old Europe taking their titles from Francis Fukuyama's End of History and the Last Man.

McKenzie, a graduate of Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen, and the University of Ulster in Belfast, offers a re-reading of his grandfather's aging images, taken in the Soviet Union, Romania and the old Eastern Bloc, circa 1970.

'Because my grandfather was an amateur photographer, he had an eye for composition,' says McKenzie, considering the balance of elements found in the native images.

More than a decorative tribute to his mother's father, McKenzie's mixed-media compositions have their philosophical roots in the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose 1964 tract Eye and Mind has informed the images' construction.

The nature of framing, both figurative and literal, and the process of vision, are related interests for the artist who counts a John Moores prize in his list of awards.

The images in Scenes from Old Europe combine circular images within squares within the borders of the paper.

This decision deliberately opposes the naturalizing tendency to consistently frame our images - televisual, filmic or photographic - in a rectangular, letterbox format.

'The reason I came to use the circle was to tie in to the idea of peripheral vision. We have this peripheral vision that gives us a circular view of things.

'We think of pictures in a very "rectangular" way,' he continues, his own eyes, like many others, framed by rectangular glasses. 'But that's not how we actually experience the world.

'Your peripheral vision is always at play,' says McKenzie, who held the Lecturer in Painting post at Limerick School of Art for six years, until 2003.

In phenomenological thought, the reality or nature of the external world becomes implicated in ideas of perception, symbolism and the symbolic ordering of knowledge, in which meaning-making occurs within a subjective, centralised self.

'Even if the artist wants to draw your attention to a particular part of the painting and isolate something, it's impossible for the viewer to look at one part of the picture without simultaneously seeing something else,' says McKenzie of the potential for infinite readings of his, or any other, work.

'In a funny way the things happening 'outside' the picture are just as important.'

The predominantly red, yellow and newspaper grays of 'Is History Directional?' position the viewer at one end of a time-travelling telescope.

The stuck paper, collage and seemingly unassociated elements outside the rectangular frame constructing a visual metanarrative that brings the constructed nature of the presentation to the fore.

'From a distance they stand out as being quite bold, graphic images, but when people get a bit closer there's more for them to get out of the pictures.

'Part of the idea is to have a push and pull between what's painted and isn't painted, what's stuck on - this is a strip of masking tape here, this is painted on with a thinned version of the yellow used here. I'm trying to play visual games.'

The effect, in some cases, is like holding a mirror up to a mirror, or concieving of time as a construct that instead of moving from left to right, moves in perpetual spirals or concentric circles, each image possessing a depth of action and activity that immediately transcends their two-dimensional, static presentation.

'Within the main pictures, there's two pictures - you have the circle within the square. If you think of the circle as a picture within a picture, the other picture is what's happening around the borders.

'I'm trying to draw people's attention to the borders of the paper as well. All the pictures have a device along the bottom which is meant to suggest that they're being propped up, by something outside the picture.'

Closer observation and immersion in the images reveals the fun and mischief, of inter-frame interaction, of images within images, looping and unfixed to any linear, sequential narrative.

McKenzie's reappropriation of the images extends and develops the work of the eyes of two generations past.

The images retain his grandfather's core compositon, but McKenzie has worked square images into circular holes.

'Using a circular image lets everyone know that I've left things out. They've been cropped, but the only added information I've given is this small rectangle here [in 'The Unreality of 'Realism''].

'This is the original photograph, the original colour slide.

'Again, it's another visual game. I hadn't thought of using it until I saw a figure with an outstretched arm, and the idea of a hand, passing in a photograph - a visual pun.'

For an artitst having fun with lofty themes, the heart of the work lies closer to home. The hand passing the photograph into the picture can easily be read as an illustration of the gift from grandfather to grandson, the hand offering a snapshot of a time gone by.

'My grandparents were interested in history, and wanted to see what it was like in these countries. For the rest of my family, the slides were just holiday snaps.

'I remember seeing small cups and prizes from my grandfather's Camera Clubs and photography competitions, so ultimately that's how my images come to be here. I see my work as a small homage, in a way, to his photographs.'