Ian McKeever

Waterfalls No. 5


Not on display

Ian McKeever born 1946
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper and pastel, acrylic paint, and ink on paper
Displayed: 1580 × 2230 × 50 mm
Purchased 2015


Waterfalls No. 5 1979 is a large-scale diptych on paper by the British artist Ian McKeever. For the left hand panel the artist used charcoal and graphite with accents of colour in acrylic and pastel, whereas the right hand panel is a black and white photograph. The individual panels are portrait in orientation, but when seen together they form a landscape-format work. The photograph shows the frozen surface of a waterfall on the Isle of Skye that McKeever visited in January 1979. The drawing is a gestural retort to the photograph, made using a range of media including acrylic paint; it does not represent or directly echo the photographic image but creates a pairing that is suggestive of the action of geological duration as well as McKeever’s response to the forces of nature and the artistic tools at his disposal. Waterfalls No. 5 is one of a series of nine works that treat this subject using this format.

McKeever returned from his trip to Skye with images on 35 mm film and sketches depicting frozen waterfalls. He enlarged the negatives to a size where information started to be lost in the grain of the image and the paper, and then paired them with drawings of the same height (but sometimes varying widths) that he worked up from the sketches made on Skye. The enlarged photographs and drawings were then framed and presented as diptychs. There is a fundamental gap communicated in these works between photograph (where the decision to focus the camera on something implicitly excludes everything that surrounds it) and drawn image, as McKeever has explained: ‘to begin with the photograph is a decision to leave something out; with a drawing it is a decision to put something in … each mark is unique and can influence or ignore any preceding one, so determining its own contribution.’ (Ian McKeever, Field Series, Nigel Greenwood Gallery, London 1978, unpaginated.)

McKeever had arrived at the diptych form with his previous group of works, Field Series 1977–8. This consisted of drawings of fields with a smaller photograph presented beneath to create a vertical diptych, a format which allowed for an equality of status that could yet contain different conventions of picturing. The critic Wulf Herzogenrath has described how, in these works, this equality could encompass ‘a chronological leap, a shift of meaning, a distinction of status; all this can be represented, and at the same time transcended, within the diptych form.’ (Wulf Herzogenrath, ‘The Painting and the Photograph’, in Whitechapel Gallery 1990, p.68.)

The central oppositions in the Waterfalls series as a whole revolve around McKeever’s investigation of the objective (photographic) and the subjective eye and the importance that time and duration play in the communication of his subject matter. What drives his work is not a reflection on landscape as an image or pictorially represented subject, but the methods he can bring to bear in communicating the processes he discerns in the ‘mineral presence’ of the landscape (Lewis Biggs, ‘The Shape of Time’, in Whitechapel Gallery 1990, p.19). In creating his work, McKeever presents a cultural analogue for the material change that landscape is continually undergoing. Of vital importance to this endeavour was his discovery of the work of the American earthwork artist Robert Smithson, which he first saw in 1970. For McKeever – and as exemplified by Smithson’s work – the flux through which processes of change in the landscape could be addressed had to take account of both natural geologies and man-made interventions. Similarly, geological activity and artistic process could play off each other. This dualism is crystallised in the Waterfalls works between the supposed objective fact of the photograph (an image that is a frozen moment in time of a frozen moment) and the artist’s subjective gestural response.

The work that McKeever made at the end of the 1970s, while it deployed photography as one of the tools used to investigate a relationship between art and the natural world, was always formed with a concern for painting in mind. McKeever has suggested that works such as Waterfalls No. 5 ‘are to a large extent about painting although they present themselves as a drawing and a photo(graph) … They are an attempt to say something about the nature of painting as an activity, about how we get at what is a painting, about how information on that level presents itself.’ (Ian McKeever, from an interview with Tony Godfrey, in Fields, Waterfalls and Birds – Ian McKeever, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini, Bristol 1980, unpaginated.)

Further reading
McKeever: Ian McKeever, Paintings 1978–1990, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 1990.
Ian McKeever: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Kings Place Gallery, London 2009.
Ian McKeever: Against Photography: Early Works 1975–1990, exhibition catalogue, Hackelbury Fine Art, London 2014, reproduced pp.38–9, 45.

Andrew Wilson
April 2015

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