Angus Macpherson | Change in the Air

By Virginia Campbell


Since 1983, when he turned to painting full time, Angus Macpherson has become so well known for his luminous, billowing skyscapes that people actually come up to him in his hometown of Albuquerque, NM, and say, “You’re the guy who does the storms and clouds.” Macpherson’s paintings of dramatic skies, often in radiantly translucent layers of acrylic inflected with twilight and dawn hues, are fluid compositions that register as simultaneously grand and intimate. It’s not surprising that he has an ardent, if moderately sized, following. (“I’ve never been famous, but I’ve been a middleweight,” he says dryly.) His stormscapes and cloudscapes welcome the viewer into “reading” the amorphous visual space and provoke emotional as well as analytical responses to their imaginary dimensions.

In representing what human beings look up at and study with daily, habitual, necessary interest, his paintings play with our vast mental libraries of skies, and they put before us the rich contradiction of ordinariness and extraordinariness. Meanwhile, there is a statement being made—these skies are neither brooding nor ominous, even when they suggest potentially violent weather, but they aren’t clear blue expanses, either. They are, essentially, images of unceasing change, of order giving constant way to disorder and new order. And, in a manner that underscores their subject, the paintings’ surfaces hover between abstraction and representation.

Macpherson also ventures outside his extremely successful skyscape mode to paint figures, interiors, and other genres. His most recent work features what would seem to be as far from illuminated skies as you can get—night scenes of figures in urban settings. But it gets to the heart of Macpherson’s true interest in painting to note that his skyscapes and city nocturnes are more similar than different. The natural near-chaos of skies and clouds is actually paralleled in the darkness that blots out the geometries of man-made cities. “What I enjoy about night scenes,” explains the artist, “are all the sources of light. What you are able to see in the city at night is much less organized because of the darkness. Painting at night takes a very patient observer.” The natural world may be in ceaseless flux, but so is the civilized world, and, oddly enough, darkness reveals its shifts and transformations especially well.


Imagery aside, much of what intrigues Macpherson is simply the paint itself—especially what it does on its own once he’s put it on a surface. Whether roiling clouds or nighttime reflections, the business of getting acrylic onto a flat surface and seeing how it bends to visual interpretation is the same. “It was the process of painting that originally turned me on to art,” says Macpherson. “My paintings celebrate the act of painting.”

The qualities and potential of acrylic paint are crucial to Macpherson’s ambitions. “Every painter develops a particular language,” says the artist. “I’ve developed mine using acrylic. The important features of acrylic for me are that I can paint with it as if it were watercolor and get wet, translucent effects. Yet acrylic can also be opaque, so you can change your mind and paint over it. Plus it dries fast, especially in New Mexico.” It is a medium that suits Macpherson, who has taken change itself as his subject. “The artist manipulates the paint,” he says in his formal statement about his work, “but the random behavior of the paint may best represent the random behavior of the world. The painter’s job is to learn when to hold back and when to let go.” He adds, “When I begin a painting I may have a particular image in mind, but I just start by putting paint on the canvas, and the painting helps me by suggesting things. There’s a randomness that congeals into an image. I’ve tried to understand that concept as long as I’ve been painting: to have something chaotic and bring meaning out of it.”

It’s helpful to hear directly from Macpherson what motivates him in his art, because if all you knew about him were his paintings and the name Angus Macpherson, you might come to the conclusion that he was a Scottish artist with a sunny/dreamy palette and a mostly inner landscape for inspiration.

Born in 1952, Macpherson is, in fact, a third-generation New Mexican. “Way back my family came from Scotland,” explains the artist. “My grandfather moved from Ontario, Canada, to New Mexico in 1890 to help build the railroads.” His father was an attorney and a judge. “Their names were both Daniel Angus Macpherson, as is mine. But I’m the first to go by just Angus,” he explains, “which is fun because people seem to think of me as a character out of a book…”

Nowhere in either branch of Macpherson’s family was there an artist whose genes or influence explain his determination to be one himself. “I had a great art class in junior high school,” he says, “and I knew art was what interested me. I never felt like I had a whole lot of choice about it.” His experience of art has been a lifelong, accelerating enthusiasm, not merely in his own work but for all art: “I enjoy looking at art more now in my 50s than I did in my 40s, and I enjoyed it more in my 40s than in my 30s. Art takes a long time to understand. Really understanding art has a lot to do with just giving it enough time.”

Because his parents were dubious about a career in art, Macpherson pursued a business degree from the University of New Mexico, fitting in as many studio art classes as possible. Though abstract painting reigned during his college years, Macpherson is and always has been “a representational painter,” he says. “I’m wired to make paint look like something.” Despite being at odds with what his art courses emphasized, he learned what he needed. As he puts it, “You reject what’s stupid and accept what works.” While he never aspired to complete abstraction, he loved it nonetheless. He’d travel to Houston to see works by Vasily Kandinsky, color field paintings by Morris Louis, and the heroic canvases of abstract expressionist greats like Willem de Kooning. “Their great exuberance was a huge influence on me,” he recalls.

Once out of college, the difficulty of being an artist kicked in. Macpherson stuck out “a bunch of boring jobs” that allowed for marriage and a family before being liberated into his studio full time in the 1980s. Gradually galleries and collectors began to support him. “I’ve never entered a contest or won an award,” he notes. “People vote for me with their dollars.” And over the years they have “voted” for his skyscapes.

In the ’90s, Macpherson’s wife, who works in computational linguistics, took a job in Antwerp, Belgium, and they settled their family there for a year. “I loved being in Antwerp,” says Macpherson, “but what I really loved was coming back home.” After Antwerp, he began branching out into other genres. The night scenes that interest him so much now date to that time. “I keep exploring new genres and will probably take on one or two more,” he says. “I like working in a number of genres at the same time because it keeps things interesting.”

Change and chaos are favored subjects in his art, but in his life, Macpherson explains, “I’m organized by routine.” He goes to work every morning around 7:00 in his studio on the second floor of the adobe house where he and his family have lived for years. There he initiates his painting process by putting his first gestures onto the canvas and taking a step into the unknown. The prospect of surprise is as constant as the changing skies above.

Featured in April 2008