As I write this, the Earth imperceptibly tilts on its axis relative to its orbital plane, CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere and, outside my window, rain collects in the street. The way we think and talk about landscape, and by extension, weather, is important to Shona Macdonald, who grew up in Scotland, where, she reminds me, there are over fifty words for rain—think smirr, haar and dreich. Through hyper-specific language we resolve the world around us in greater detail and, in the words of British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, “enchant our relation to nature and place.” With an ear to forecasts out of Aberdeen, her hometown, in phrases like “deep low in the Atlantic” and “another depression in the North Sea,” Macdonald hears prosaic yet poignant measures of what she refers to as “states of being.”
“Weather Accents,” on view at the South Side backyard garage gallery that is Boundary, is composed of work made over the last four years in which Macdonald’s concerns around landscape were gradually distilled down to weather, then purified further into rain. For the Amherst, Massachusetts-based artist, who earned her MFA from UIC in 1996, it’s the first time exhibiting in Chicago since 2018 and her first solo show in the city since 2012.
Paintings from “View of Rain,” which the artist describes as exploring the “melancholic aspects of rain,” are prominently featured. What they have in common are clusters of ellipses of varying sizes on subtle gradients or otherwise gray, faintly metallic monochromes. The ellipses represent capillary waves, the steadily expanding circular waveforms caused by a disturbance to the surface tension of water. Their placement is sparse like at the end or in a lull of a storm or the first wee drops before the sky opens up; what the Scots call “sneesl.” “View of Rain Large Diptych,” a two-paneled painting of an extreme horizontal nature, features a dizzying sense of foreshortening turned on its side. Its spareness makes me think of “shibui,” a Japanese term that roughly translates to the beauty of quiet simplicity, austerity and somber tones. In the piece titled “Weather Accents,” the puddles and their echoed forms in silhouette become windows onto a world turned upside down. To stare at a puddle, an act Macdonald describes as “dreamlike,” is to hang our head, to lower our gaze to the wet Earth, a view without horizon. The perceived negative space becomes pools into which we pour subjectivity; screens upon which to ponder and project our innermost thoughts and feelings.
Also included are the small, knitted “Overcast” pieces that depict gray clouds floating in gray skies. The loose strands of cotton yarn left to dangle from behind—what in stranded or Fair Isle knitting are called “floats”—easily suggests rain. It’s the first time Macdonald has exhibited this kind of work, a memorial to her late mother from whom she learned to knit. The process and material bring forth associations with the homemade: sweaters, blankets and scarves. Cozily wrapping our bodies with a gift and the warmth it provides. Indeed, what could be more intimate than our experience of weather? Our bodies shiver in blizzards, sweat through hot summers and synthesize vitamin D in the light of the sun. But at the same time, paradoxically, it seems hard to think of a subject more all-encompassing, more open—for some, I suspect, a bit too open. Maybe, even empty.
Remember when conversations about weather were really conversations about nothing? It’s a question the philosopher of ecology, Timothy Morton, often asks when describing what they call “hyperobjects.” Today, what begins as a polite comment about the temperature belies implications of profound magnitude. Keep talking and, despite the fact it can’t be experienced directly—because it exists on scales of time (centuries, millenia, epochs) and space (global) far greater than human—someone will mention climate change. Imbued with the knowledge that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and weakens jet streams—allowing them to meander and, in turn, increasing the chance of heavier downpours, atmospheric rivers and flooding events—a rainy day can never just be a rainy day again; it portends cataclysm. Similarly, art about rain can never just be about weather. The sublime romanticism of, say, Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Monk by the Sea,” is now—in a Blakean scale-shift—shrunk so we see in Macdonald’s puddles our rising oceans. Perhaps, in this sense, it’s possible for seemingly shallow pools of water to reflect a deeper pathos.
Shona Macdonald’s “Weather Accents” at Boundary, 2334 West 111th, (773)316-0562, email@example.com. On view by appointment through April 29.