Cautionary Tales of Caprice

Installation view of Ian Mackay’s exhibition CAPRICE, at The Red Head Gallery.                Photo credit: POVarts

In his current exhibition, CAPRICE, on view at the Red Head Gallery, artist Ian Mackay, has his finger on the electrical pulse of our current socio-political ethos. Mackay’s artwork, resides primarily in the realm of painting and drawing. His figurative works, in particular, offer us an electrical conduit charged with contemporary tensions and feelings of urgency that are conveyed in his expressive use of color and gestural forms. While the content of the images Mackay creates,  bring up feelings of political unrest and dizzying fast-paced smartphone tempos, he resolves them formally through compositional strategies that create unity, such as symmetry, rhythm, and color harmony. Commentary about contemporary political fickleness and media phenomenons are presented with broad strokes of color 

Judge Shrug, 2019. Oil on wood, 25.5 x 21.5” Photo credit:

(especially pinks and yellows) and a healthy dose of humor. Mackay is adept at addressing painfully aware political content and commentary through the upending use of humor, thereby making it palatable in the way that my favorite Philip Guston paintings do.

One work that doesn’t fit in is the artist’s “selfie” self-portrait. It is the most realistically painted work in the show, that doesn’t sit well in the dominant “reality” of the exhibition. Too close, too realistic, it makes you consider, how in a cultural moment where true facts and science are held in suspended suspicion, distortion has become more real than realism. The whole show makes you think and feel, and in case there’s any confusion in the choice of exaggerated, cropped, gestural forms – Mackay gives us printed brief statements by each work, to give the viewer some grounding to help match one’s experience with the artist’s intention. 

The standout artwork in the show is without a doubt is Learning to Dance. This painting commands the viewer’s attention through scale (54 x 48”), ambition, and compositional complexity, all contributing to a whirling intense energy where every disparate element (i.e. scattered and extra limbs) and detail (i.e. motion lines and decorative elements) supports the other and makes sense. 

Learning to Dance, 2019. Oil on linen, 54 x 48″ Photo credit:

Another stand out work is the black and white drawing entitled, The Squad Going Back, that features four figures fleeing in a boat. The artist writes of the work: “A critical imagining of the four female congresswomen known as The Squad, on a dingy seen from above, forced to leave America after the President’s insulting tweet…” This work was created in response to Trump’s inflammatory tweet on July 14, 2019:  “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries

The Squad Going Back, 2019. Charcoal on cotton rag paper, 30 x 22” Photo credit: POVarts

whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.” Followed by another tweet saying:  “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” The absurdity of this statement is the fact that three of the four congresswomen were born in the US.

Mackay makes images that represent ambiguity between representation and abstraction, as well as mixed messages and emotions. His ability with painting techniques and tools is apparent in the range of perspectives, image densities, and thoughtful use of formal and conceptual symmetry in his work. The result is an exhibition full of dynamic formal and conceptual juxtapositions, and highly visual and psychologically engaging artworks.

Caprice is on view October 2 – October 26, 2019 The Red Head Gallery is located at 401 Richmond Street West, Suite 115, Toronto, Ontario M5V 3A8   

Top Image: Pointing Fingers, 2018. Oil on canvas, 24 x 26”

Written by Katerina Lanfranco

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