'Significant Other' by Ranald MacDonald

Animals, and dogs in particular, could be considered the perfect portal for anthropomorphism.They have the requisite facial features to convey emotion, apparent understanding and empathy, whilst benefiting from the multiple millennia of domestication that have earned them the epithet of man’s best friend. And so a plethora of playful pooches serve as the principal protagonists of Ranald Macdonald’s debut solo exhibition ‘Significant Other’. However, the artist’s homage to hounds began with a continued investigation of clouds, an omnipresent visual signifier across two of his primary areas of inspiration, the history of art and the pantheon of animated entertainment. From Titian to Toy Story, those ethereal, atmospheric non-spaces have been variously employed to denote hope, happiness, freedom, thought, opportunity, celestial contemplation and the promise of silver linings, as well as depression, doom, damnation, fear, preoccupation or the brewing storm of pathetic fallacy. In our increasingly digital age, clouds can refer to those unseen, supposedly endless, online storage systems. While in literature, having your head in them could indicate an overactive imagination or tendency towards dissociated daydreaming. Of course, the striking visual similarity between stereotypical flocculent cumulus and an especially fluffy, fuzzy or fleecy doggo is not lost on Macdonald, who employs both as enduring entities onto which we can project our own innermost thoughts and feelings.

Both painting and Pixar, the former commonly considered high-brow, the latter low-brow -cultural value systems that mean little to Macdonald - have historically been used as educational tools to tell universal stories. Attractive animated or artistic allegories that can address serious subject matter or express difficult emotions, often with beauty, humour or dignity. Just as while gazing skyward one might individually interpret a cloud formation to resemble an animal, a house or a lost tooth, certain people’s immediate infantilization in the presence of a poodle, a pug or a pomeranian is evidence of their broad empathetic appeal and emotional allure. Hence the exhibition’s title, ‘Significant Other’, not only refers to that unique bond between human beings and our (tamed) beasts but also alludes to a more all-encompassing interconnectedness to nature and an appreciation of one’s own environment. 

Such ecological attentiveness is echoed in many of the artworks settings - public parks, communal commons and sandy seashores, those outdoor spaces that we all became much more aware of during our allotted daily hour of exercise amongst the pandemic’s lingering lockdowns - as well as their medium - on found board, reclaimed panel or recycled paper with paints sourced from Lucy Mayes’ London Pigments, a curated collection of hand-made pigments that start life as natural materials foraged from in and around the capital; stones, soil, crumbled brickwork etc. Many begin as studies sketched en plein air, or as preparatory parklife photographs, while Macdonald also works from his own homemade model mongrels. Puppet-like pup reproductions of those wooden mannequins that line the shelves of art and craft stores, they allow him to perfect proportions, hone suitable scale and refine his own idiosyncratic visual perspective.

Throughout, Macdonald breaks away from the traditional one point perspective that has dominated the artistic discourse for centuries, perhaps pioneered and promoted by a cult of the individual. Whereas previously, painted scenes would seem to perform to an anticipated or expected viewer, here the dogs take centre stage amid a slightly surreal perspective that demands the viewer lower oneself to their level. At the same time, the human presence within the artworks is minimal, regularly restricted to distant, distorted corporeal blurs, a haze of humanity seen through the eyes of our canine companions. Not unlike the anonymised, exclusively neck-down existence of Tom and Jerry’s owner in their eponymous cartoon, these figures act solely in service to their dogs, occasionally in opposition, but invariably only enabling that distinct interminable excitement and unceasing energy.