Will Maclean and Marian Leven: Confluence

Publication: The Times.    
October 2015

There is an essential symbiosis between the work of Marian Leven and Will Maclean. The couple met while students at Gray’s School of Art in the ‘60s and have been a partnership since that time.

They settled in Tayport, a few miles from the venue of this show, early in their careers. So it seems fitting that one of Scotland’s newest gallery spaces, with, arguably the best views (wide, expansive vistas across the Tay estuary to the Perthshire mountains beyond) should host two artists whose work is so deeply embedded in the cultural and physical landscape of Scotland.

In their ancestral origins the artists might seem to embody the divisions of their own nation. Maclean’s ancestry is Highland (from Skye) while Leven grew up in Fife. They maintain what might be best described as a spiritual home near Achiltibuie in Wester Ross and it is from this perspective, in a literal and figurative sense, that much of their work derives.

Neither are literal or mimetic artists; their work shares a subtlety and a complexity honed over decades of experimentation and exploration. Indeed, both are explorers in the sense that the physical landscape they inhabit is deeply intertwined with a way of seeing that is both poetic, robust and paradoxically delicate.

The sense of light reflecting from sky and water in this airy, uplifting space suits the work of both artists well (although the prevalence of reflective glass in much of the work means than some of the concentration is needs is dissipated, and sometimes lost).

Leven’s work is primarily concerned with the idea of landscape as a filter for feeling, and conversely the way in which emotion, and filtered experience, can affect our reading of landscape. Too seldom are we aware, as inhabitants of an extraordinarily beautiful country, of the way light and water create such nuanced vistas.

Leven’s painting seems to be all about conveying such sentiments and perspectives; her mastery is, at times, quite wonderful. A watercolour such as ‘Haar Lifting’, distils the various elements of light, land, sea, emotion and perception, apparently effortlessly. It recalls the work of another Lowland landscape artist, William Johnstone, in its essential combination.

Maclean’s ancestors lived and died by the sea. The sea bore them; it traditions, superstitions and weather moulded them, and its fruits sustained them. Many years ago Maclean’s Ring Net Project documented the tail-end of a hunting tradition which had obtained for millennia. Such deep rooted awareness, full of archetype and atavism, has allowed Maclean to extend his empathy to diverse cultures across the globe. Although rooted in the specific, his imagery has a universal application.

‘Shelly Man, Iceland’, for example is a combination of anthropology and artefact – the type of artwork at which Maclean excels. It incorporates the photograph of a figure covered in a literal suit of shells; Maclean has replaced the face with a bird’s skull, while gesso and paint knit the construction together. Maclean carries the unusual original into the realm of the mysterious and other-worldly, a territory which his unusually gifted artistic sensibility readily inhabits.