Ian McKay online gallery
1936 - 2007
Ian McKay is a pivotal figure in the history of Australian sculpture. He studied under Lyndon Dadswell at the National Art School in Sydney from 1958 at a time when a new wave of Modernism, emanating from America, was exploding onto the Australian scene. McKay's initial interest was in the Europeans and from 1961-63 he travelled to Spain, Greece, United Kingdom and Switzerland, seeing for the first time sculptures by Matisse, Lipchitz and Degas. In London he attended the St Martin's School of Art for a short time where Anthony Caro and Phillip King were teaching, but they were not an influence at the time.
In 1967 two events really registered with him, the exhibition shown in Sydney, Two decades of American painting, and Rodin. Both exhibitions left a lasting impression on him, but it was the humanist approach of Rodin that deeply affected him. For him, Rodin had the ability to synthesise classical paradigms with a fresh urge towards innovation and experimentation, which came from his profound understanding of the human figure.
When McKay felt that his current abstract carvings were becoming a bit stultified in the late sixties he went looking for a new way of working and turned to constructed steel sculpture, which for him combined both a carving and a modelling aesthetic. He developed a way of working which allowed him to tap into something equivalent to Rodin's approach. In an interview with Harvey Shields in February 2007, he put it this way,
"...you have to use steel to do a Rodin. You can't do it in clay today; a lot of artists give up when they realise they can't do it...If you're really sophisticated you can do it in steel; it won't look like a Rodin, but it will have the authenticity that a Rodin has."
It was this ‘authenticity' that McKay was looking for. For him, sculpture should say something fresh and positive about the past while at the same time be opening up towards a new perception.
To achieve his ends McKay was never dictated to by his material, in fact steel became just another material like clay, which he used for all its expressive qualities.
In the same interview he talks about the technique of chiaroscuro used by artists like Leonardo de Vinci. McKay recognised this as a modelling technique using light and dark to achieve an effect of movement in space. This may be a way of understanding how he brought his modeller's eye to his construction technique. To really ‘see' a McKay sculpture one should see into it. One should see how each discrete element works off the next and how the elements relate to the whole. The eye travels through the sculpture making connections with light and shade in much the same way we would look at say the drapery from Leonardo de Vinci's Portrait of a Lady (1490).
Later in his career (1981), he lived and worked in New York where he felt at home surrounded by some of the great 20th century masterworks, and a lot of his ideas were confirmed when he saw the work of David Smith in the flesh for the first time.
Writing about David Smith, in his collection of essays Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg wrote,
"Smith is one of these artists on the order of Balzac who not only can afford their mistakes, but even need them. Original art arrives more often than not by way of errors of taste, false starts and overrun objectives."
David Smith was a very original artist and when it comes to working in steel McKay seems to have an affinity with his thinking. For McKay, a sculpture has to have just the right amount of bad taste, which may sound like an oxymoron, but as Greenberg states, bad taste can lead to originality. It doesn't matter to McKay if he makes a few false starts; it is always about the discovery. If something is disturbing him, he tries to hang on to that sensation and continue along that line of thinking to the point where everything becomes ‘tuned' to the same sensation. It is like the genius of Matisse, who can make a mistake then put it right by making it look intentional, by making it consistent.
McKay's work is not yet fully appreciated. It will take a scholarly appraisal to really come to terms with his work. His sculpture is often dismissed as mere formalism, but on closer examination the thinking displayed is very original. With his sculptures we are always being exposed to new sensations and new experiences. His seminal piece, Wave (1976-77) went through a number of changes before it was eventually purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW. Wave, in its various versions demonstrates how he never thinks about ‘finishing' a sculpture because for him a sculpture is a continuum, an infinite source of experiences. We are fortunate that Wave and a number of other major pieces have ended up in public collections.
No sculptor has ever had a more critical eye than Ian McKay, which prevents his work from becoming self-indulgent. He is never precious about his work and is not afraid to completely scrap something or make a radical change where it is needed. His large works take shape in the paddock where they seem to grow from the earth and at times he has taken to rolling his sculptures onto their side with his truck, thus radically changing their profile. It is like Rodin modelling a figure in his hands, then turning it and altering it so that it becomes something other than the normal perceived convention. McKay is a larger than life figure and he makes larger than life sculpture, not overblown or bombastic sculpture, but sculpture that resonates with down to earth artistic integrity.