Obituary: Mary Maclean, artist, lecturer, Outside Architecture founding member

Mary Maclean, MA,RCA, artist and senior lecturer. Born: 25 July, 1962 in Edinburgh. Died: 12 February, 2018, aged 55
Artist Mary MacleanArtist Mary Maclean
Artist Mary Maclean

Mary Maclean was the sixth of seven children. By all accounts, and confirmed by her own written recollections, she enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood full of play and games, one where the realm of the imagination was given free rein.

She studied at the Edinburgh Steiner School where great emphasis was placed on nurturing creativity and realising the artistic potential of students. The school participated in exchange programmes with other Steiner Schools in Europe and her large Edinburgh home often resounded to the echo of other languages.

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One such exchange took the young Mary to Finland for a spell. Besides her abiding interest in art, she was an accomplished pianist. From an early age, she possessed a strong-willed and determined personality, very pragmatic, bright and capable. Mary went on to attend some of Europe’s leading art schools including the Glasgow School of Art, The Rijkesakademie in Amsterdam and completed her MA in the painting department of the Royal College of Art in London in 1988.

Various awards and residencies followed her formal studies. In 1991 she was appointed to the distinguished Fellowship in Painting at Winchester School of Art and in 1987 held an International Artist Residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Years later she spent a period of scholarship at the British School at Rome as a recipient of a prestigious Abbey Award. She made indelible impressions on each of these institutions, winning the admiration and respect of staff and students alike.

Mary had an enormously appealing presence that marked her out wherever she appeared. People were drawn to her. This presence illuminated the lives of all who knew her. She possessed an understated and upright dignity, exuded an impressive quietude and a rare, unobtrusive, attentiveness to people, things and places. An avid reader (Calvino, Proust, Borges and Sebald were major influences), she demonstrated a keen epistemophilic instinct through her intertwined artistic and teaching practices. Her considerable erudition was lightly and judiciously deployed in all circumstances.

A razor sharp visual intelligence was brought to bear on all aspects of her life and she and we derived great pleasure from her boundless and generous curiosity. Many art schools and colleges across the country sought her expertise and her work as a regular visiting lecturer spanned some 25 years. Significantly, she held a series of permanent senior lecturer appointments from 1991-2017 initially at Coventry University then at the University of Reading and latterly at the Royal Academy schools. Other appointments included acting as external examiner at various universities.

Her own artistic output was greatly praised, admired and respected. Mary was one of those artists whom other artists held in deep regard. An impressive résumé records a national and international exhibition trajectory that attests to this regard.

Notable among these exhibitions were a series of collaborative events initiated with the artist-led curatorial group Outside Architecture of which she was a founding member with artists Tim Renshaw and Bernice Donszelmann. This collaboration was a splendid fit for all concerned and provided a mutually hospitable artistic and intellectual context for their practice. Numerous exhibitions followed their eponymous first group show, Outside Architecture, staged in 2009 and most recently in the expanded collaboration Plan Un-plan held at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich in 2017.

Anonymous, yet strangely familiar, domestic and institutional spaces were the hallmarks of Mary Maclean’s later photographic practice. A judicious emptying out of the image was enacted through her critical eye. The overlooked and nondescript were elevated through the focus of her attention, resulting in restrained images of unadorned formal elegance that are distinctly hers.

Mary was an avid Europhile, she spent prolonged periods living in different European countries and spoke German, Dutch, French and Italian. This love of language and passion for etymology is to be attributed to her father, Donald, who invented a ‘language game’ for his children. While out walking, an object would be selected and he would proffer the name in various languages and their challenge was to identify which.

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The things deemed worthy of attention by Maclean were brought together in one indivisible embrace, connected through the consummate care extended to the overlapping spheres of artistic practice; teaching; good food; conviviality; fun and friendship. In short her particular expression of ‘attention to life’. All of these concerns added up to a life lived well with integrity and consistency, an enduring life force or élan vital.

The photographs were shot straight on and this emphatic frontality stages a face-to-face encounter with the viewer. When we stand before her work, are faintly reflected in the surfaces, we are subtly transformed by the poignancy of the image into which we pour our gaze. Our position shifts as we incline toward Maclean’s photographs and meditate on what is carefully shown to us. For all their formal assuredness, precision and exactness, the works nevertheless portray a highly contingent visual poetics that shuttle precariously between clarity and uncertainty; facile reconciliation is held in abeyance in favour of a productive, speculative openness.

Traces of her training as a painter were still very much in evidence in the painterly photographs and photoetchings. Remarkably, her photographs simultaneously yoke a unity and a multiplicity. An exemplary work would be Enough, Very, Too, Extremely, made in 2014 and shown as part of Of and For an exhibition co-curated with Camilla Wilson. Beguiling conjunctions of photographic and screen print panels conspire to awaken the senses; lurid chromatic panels are welcome interlopers and provide a visual sting, a zingy counterpoint, in the otherwise grayscale world. Surfaces that breathe with sensuous delight invite palpation and caress and introduce a rapturous, acerbic, contrast to the drier monochromatic representations of ubiquitous institutional notice boards.

These startling disruptions perhaps carry an echo of the flamboyant young Mary Maclean who dressed expressively and sported pink hair and red trousers while a student at Glasgow School of Art, an image that stands in contrast to the more sober sartorial palette of her London days.

Mary Maclean bestows to us a creative legacy, a remarkable photographic corpus that will undoubtedly endure, alongside cherished memories of loyal friendship and generations of students who benefited from her wise counsel and sparkling intellect. With her passing, we have indeed lost someone rare.

Mary is survived by her husband Phil Griffin. During their shared lives as artists, there were always ongoing mutual discussions on the conceptual and practical approaches to making work.

Jim Mooney