The Atrocity Exhibition: Dan Miller & Alec Mackenzie

The David Dale Gallery and Studios is housed in an old college building in deepest, darkest Bridgeton, Glasgow. Later this month the gallery brings together Glasgow-based artists <strong>Alec Mackenzie</strong> and <strong>Dan Miller</strong> in a two man show called POINT/LINE/SURFACE/SOLID. The Skinny quizzed them on what to expect

Feature by Andrew Cattanach | 02 Feb 2011

Quite different in their approach, and in many ways polar in their aesthetic sensibility, Alec Mackenzie and Dan Miller nonetheless converge at various intervals, not least in their desire to distance themselves from the concepts that drive their work. Mackenzie speaks of an intuitive process in some ways remote from any core research or distinct point of reference, while Miller, who admits to the specific origins of his work, gives little indication of what motivates him to make it.

“I’ve been looking at wire frame modelling, schematics, diagrams – getting a 2D image and chucking it all to a vanishing point,” Mackenzie explains, showing me pictures of large-scale wall drawings that look like retro computer graphics. “There is an element of forethought and design, but really I just enjoy doing them and working in that method.”

Despite the pared down aesthetic, there’s something garish about these works: their shameless use of trompe l’oeil techniques, their willingness to court various pop-cultural references. Drawn directly onto the wall, the lines are made using electrical tape. They seem rudimentary – a childish fantasy more than a sophisticated work of art.

“It’s that simple pleasure of taking everything back to a point and making a space out of really basic shapes,” Mackenzie says. “I like that sci-fi aesthetic – straight lines, big cavernous spaces – like 2001: a Space Odyssey.”

I suggest that there’s something of the Futurists or the Vorticists (early 20th-century art movements that celebrated militarism and modern technology) in his work; that perhaps his use of de-humanised imagery speaks of a kind of nostalgic admiration for progress. “It’s like what JG Ballard has been going on about,” he says, bringing my references a little more up to date.

He goes on to describe the Vorticist artist Norman Wilkinson’s invention of Dazzle camouflage. A technique used on battle ships during the World Wars, Dazzle camouflage employed a black and white line pattern, not to conceal the vessel but to make it difficult for the enemy to identify it or determine its heading. It was a kind of visual cipher, a way of encoding the perceptible.

Dan Miller, too, employs a similar method of encoding. Quite clearly painting and sculpture, the work is nonetheless difficult to pin down. There’s no trompe l’oeil trickery or overt pop-cultural references. The motifs used – lines and geometric shapes – are simplistic but seem to have no particular source. The paintings are flat, emphasising surface over illusion.

Newly returned from a residency in Denmark where he was focussing solely on painting, he takes me through some slides of the exhibition he held there. Muted shades of blues and greys form patterns over modest, square canvases. Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian design and the work of Dutch painter Van Doesburg, the paintings are aesthetically more coherent than his earlier works.

In one triptych he uses the same repeated pattern, gleaned from a Danish supermarket shopping bag. “When I first got there I thought, ‘I need some kind of new motif’,” he says. “Having seen this bag it kind of got me thinking about the universal kinds of measurements they use in these shopping stores. Not just the buildings but the way the stalls are laid out. And then I thought of these stalls adopting a very specific reference, something echoing this kind of modernist form, and thinking about why this appropriation has taken place and what they are trying to do with that.”

We discuss the relevance of particular design motifs and what they imply, acknowledging that perhaps in many ways a lot of northern European design denotes a basic need for efficiency and cleanliness.

“There always has been a meticulous sort of coolness,” Miller says of the Glasgow art scene and its adoration of 60s and 70s minimalist art and design. “In a way it’s the product of the sort of time period we find ourselves in – back to a similar sort of economic, political situation.”

It seems the art world follows at the heel of our boom and bust economic malaise. Glasgow during past recessions (not to mention Tory governments) has drawn comparisons to the developing world. Set against a backdrop of decaying social housing, it’s no wonder Scots are ambivalent to modernist design and architecture.

Like a dystopia dreamed up in a JG Ballard novel, Scotland is haunted by its failed ideals. Exactly at the point when politics and art came to the same conclusions something went awry. It’s now the role of our artists to relive the moment it all went wrong, keeping time with the inevitable beat of financial crises.

David Dale Gallery, 19 Feb - 13 Mar, Free