McDonnell show makes them smile

THERE are a few exhibitions I go to nowadays that bring a smile to my face. Usually art is rather serious stuff and no harm in that.

But the new show down at Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum does just that. And it’s not just me; quite a few folk around me at the time were also having a good laugh.

Mike McDonnell is certainly no stranger on the Shetland art scene and his new exhibition is as good as ever. Always an individualist and sharp wit this show demonstrates his amazing skills as an imaginative artist and craftsman.

First off there’s a lot of stuff in the show so I apologise for not covering everything. Mike is nothing if not prolific.

From his initial research into the museum’s archives which commis­sioned some of this recent work, Mike has made pieces using the museum collection format such as “Early Beginnings”… “Early People”… “Custom & Folklore” etc. It’s a clever device and one which helps to structure the col­lection of disparate works.

Probably there’s too much here but then I think it’s one of my only criticisms of the new Museum which is overload. However, Mike’s works are so full of diverse elements and media that they eventually win me over.

His method of working is con­struction – finding, forming, shap­ing, joining, colouring and framing many small elements; a bit like putting together a jigsaw or a wooden puzzle.

The materials are at once recog­nisable and a basic currency of our everyday life, especially tools which feature in several works.

I love the imaginative process at work that sees the woodwork saw as part of a pterodactyl or forming the overalls of a boat builder.

Such visual puns are one of Mike’s trademarks. Found objects like this appear throughout, the cogged wheel in the rather scary Machine Knitter, guitar parts and printed circuit boards in Telecroft, and the hilarious use of pipes in Underground Movement. And there’s a plethora of driftwood.

But mostly he fashions his own pieces, carving, cutting, jigsawing, gluing together and painting to form often large wooden constructions.

The first 15 or so in this show correspond to the early beginnings of Shetland seen through his anar­chic eyes with humorous details which can only be described as 3D cartoons. In The Pictish Heretic the iconic three monks face the cross whilst their flushed companion faces the mead in the other direction.

There’s similar fun and puns at work in the other “early beginnings” and “early people” culminating in the Pictish Head Case full of carved stones heads…what else? A few of these are just a wee bit silly but you can’t fault the imagination or the care taken over details.

One of my favourite pieces fea­tures a relief of six boats – five identical in natural wood with names like Tradition, Conformity, Compli­ance and so on while the sixth boat, multi-coloured, sailing away in the opposite direction, is called Free­dom! The piece probably sums up Mike’s ethos.

But it’s not all laughs. Like all good true comedy there’s a serious underlying message. By-Catch – Accidental Victims parades those creatures caught up in the fishing industry – the dolphin, the puffin, the guillemot, and particularly the otter trapped in the creel.

In Cod We Trust is a serious com­ment on the current state of fishing while other works are a response to decommissioning and the fishing industry in general.

There’s gruesome construction called Visit Norway which as a post­card image –the impaled seal pup– formed part of a protest to Norwegian MPs.

Turning to local politics won’t exactly make Mike a lot of friends at the town hall. But it’s all good fun and wry comments such as Theory and Practice places such work in the genre of political cartoon albeit in three dimensions.

There can’t be an artist in the land who doesn’t agree with State Ben­efits as the artist’s painting is reduced from colourful lady, through nude, to blank canvas in four moves as the art world, commission and tax kicks in.

In the Changing Cultures and On the Move sections of this show we’ve lots more satirical comments on Shetland, none more so than the hilarious Underground Movement. It’s still up to date in its depiction of dug-up Lerwick streets and the road sign, Danger – Permanent Road­works is a sentiment many motorists will warm to.

More three-dimensional cartoons feature a collection of owls in two works about the dangers of xeno­phobia called Discord and Harmony. A driftwood valkyrie announces wave goodbye to wind power. A drawing of the Lerwick waterfront 2010 executed like an architectural design sneaks in MacDonald’s, Burger King and KFC.

But it’s the more subtle imagin­ative comments on society that bring out the most humour. Unchanging Fashions charts the progress from Pict to hoodie, displaying the con­formity of hooded clothing over hundreds of years. Put like that it sounds like a yawn; the actual work in a hoot.

There’s so much here that demands not one but several visits. I always find other artists’ sketch­books interesting; it’s an insight into that most mysterious of things – the creative process. Mike’s drawings show enlightened research.

You need to get along to Da Gadderie and see for yourself. I’m sure there’ll be mixed opinion but as a famous artist once said, it’s the function of artists to make the spectator see the world the artist’s way not their way. So in these distracted times the good old doctor’s prescription is obvious; laughter is the best medicine.

Peter Davis


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