Euan Macdonald


Euan Macdonald: The First and the Last (installation view, 2010): All images courtesy Birch Libralato, Toronto.Euan Macdonald: The First and the Last (installation view, 2010): All images courtesy Birch Libralato, Toronto.

By Bill Clarke

Euan Macdonald
Birch Libralato
Oct. 21 - Dec. 4, 2010

Euan Macdonald is something of a nomad, with several countries having the right to claim him as their own. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Macdonald has also lived in Western Canada and then Toronto. He is now based in Los Angeles, and this seems to be the perfect place for him to have ended up, artistically speaking. Macdonald’s interests in seriality, sound, text, typography and video position him as the heir-apparent to two of that city’s senior artists — Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari — while his most recent body of work, The First and the Last, references one of L.A.’s most notable authors, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994).

This exhibition looked like most other Macdonald exhibitions, consisting of two series of exquisite drawings and a video that, reading its description, shouldn’t be as hypnotic as it is. Sorting out the subtle connections between the elements in a Macdonald exhibition are one of the pleasures of his work. The first set of drawings, titled Play the Piano…(all works 2010), are text pieces. Euan Macdonald: The First and the Last: installation view (2010).Euan Macdonald: The First and the Last: installation view (2010).The font is taken from the cover of a collection of Bukowski’s short poems, Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed A Bit (1979), published at a point in the writer’s life when he was settling into the relative calm of married life after several tumultuous affairs. The drawings’ font has a nostalgic feel, while the texts are anagrams derived from the title of Bukowski’s book. The anagrams that Macdonald has been able to tease out read like Beat poetry. For example: PEAL/UNKIND PRO/A PICKLE/A NEUROSIS/UNLIT MEN/IN TRUST/BE FREEING/THY NIGHTS/BEAT/BOLT/DIE. (It is also an interesting aside to note that Bukowski was affiliated with the Beats early on in his writing career via the magazine, The Outsider.) These drawings relate to the video, which depicts an industrial machine designed to test the physical endurance of pianos by hammering away relentlessly at the keys for several minutes. The scrambling of the Bukowski book title finds an aural equivalent in the cacophony arising from the video, while the font now makes us think of 1920s-era jazz piano as played by Fats Waller.

The second suite of drawings depicts of a range of pianos, from battered, boxy uprights to sparkling, curvy grands, reminding us of the demanding lives that pianos take on once they’ve left the factory. But, these drawings of pianos aren't just drawings of pianos, of course. Perhaps, they are stand-ins for artists (or authors for that matter) — before they can be deemed ready to go out into the world to produce art, they first have to prove that they can withstand a pounding.