With intimations of obsessive collecting at one end of the creative process and quasi-spiritual, near fetishistic display at the other, the art of making art in boxes has always occupied a distinct position, somewhere outside the main thrust of art history. Perhaps the template set down by the genre’s most famous exponent, cranky New Yorker Joseph Cornell, is too emphatic, or his influence too strong for those in his slipstream to alter course. Maybe they’re happy to go with the flow. Certainly, Cornell haunts this retrospective of the Scottish artist Will Maclean (a concurrent show is also at Art First), despite evident differences of temperament and tone in work of the Inverness-born artist.
Maclean comes across as the very definition of a dour Scot. Colours are restrained and the mood sombre. While his assemblages reference ancient myths and lost ways of life – including stories of adventure, courage and hardship, and the ever-present, metaphorical roar of the sea – Maclean’s constructions still seem mournful even when at their most whimsical. Understandably, nautical allusions come thick and fast from the son of a harbour master, whose own career began in the merchant navy. And stories of voyages – actual and imagined – are admirably served by boxes and cabinets containing objects that act as points of departure for the imagination.
Maclean is great at conjuring big narratives from tiny elements – driftwood, fishing weights, assorted flotsam – as in the ghostly ‘Canada Passage, Cholera Bay’ (1994), in which he illustrates a tragic tale of lost life by creating a boat-like form as apparently frail as the skeleton of a sparrow. Yet it’s telling that the most engaging works here are accompanied by detailed accounts of the stories that inspired them. Without elucidation, Maclean’s boxes can wind up seeming like so many artfully arranged hooks, blades and bits of bone.