Waymarker charts artist Virginia MacKenny's walk of El Camino de Santiago.
Waymarker charts artist Virginia MacKenny's walk of El Camino de Santiago.
OPUS1: The collection begins with Vezelay, the Night before
OPUS1: The collection begins with Vezelay, the Night before

WAYMARKER, an exhibition of paintings by Virginia MacKenny at the David Krut Gallery. Until Saturday. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews.

IT SEEMS that every second person dreams of walking the increasingly popular Way of St James, El Camino de Santiago or Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.

Last year 145 877 people were recorded as having completed the pilgrimage in Spain. All routes end, like the grooves in the scallop shell (the symbol of St James) at a single point, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela or St James of the field of stars.

Although many consider the walk a Christian pilgrimage its roots are pagan. The Celts walked the route as a death and rebirth ritual ending in the burning of their clothing. The 1 000-year-old walk became popular 20 years ago, again capturing the imagination of the modern pilgrim. There are many reasons for walking the El Camino de Santiago ranging from the spiritual, dealing with loss or having reached a crossroad in one’s life.

Steeped in the medieval history of her youth it was just a matter of time before artist and senior painting lecturer at Michaelis School of Fine Art MacKenny took up the staff and backpack and made the six-week walk along a route less trod, Via Lemovicensis, or the way of Vezelay, one of the four traditional pilgrim routes.

MacKenny carried a deep concern for the natural world dedicating her walk “to the earth and all living things” and carried the messages and prayers of like-minded individuals. If you are thinking raving eco-activist, think again. The militancy of 1980s feminism with its focus on gender has given way to eco feminism.

In keeping with the traveller artists of yesteryear MacKenny carried packs of watercolour postcards and a selection of just nine water-colour pigments. Her intention was to make one postcard a day hence the exhibition’s title of Waymarker.

The structure of the exhibition comprises works done before, during and after her walk. The three large oil paintings, are all in the vivid stain of blue pigment that has become MacKenny’s current signature and were executed before the walk. The drowning house of Afloat, the aeroplane crash in the Hudson river titled Intersection and the Ray diptych of a shoal of Manta rays are all images drawn from the media and reflect a fragility associated with the moment before or a suspension.

Why this obsession with blue? Originally an unstable pigment it was not seen until after the Palaeolithic times, it alternated between being as expensive as gold and the colour worn by the poor and barbarians. We get what Matisse said when he wrote “a certain blue penetrates the soul”, but what is it about for MacKenny?

She is fascinated with suspension and thresholds, the in-between and blue is the colour of the sea and the sky and both places share the characteristics of suspension or states which cannot be fixed.

Three wonderfully atmospheric haptic little oils titled Sea Change are easily overlooked because of their positioning and show MacKenny’s flexibility and wide range.

The series Intersection was conceived before the walk, but completed afterwards. Here the blue that dominated is a mere whisper of pigment showing a residual image of an aeroplane.

It’s the 36 watercolour postcards that are the drawcard in this exhibition. They are both strong and subtle. Unlike the large canvasses whose edges bleed off into the surrounding space, these are securely contained.

Ranging from the darkest indigo, the blue of a Gitane pack of ciggies to just a hint of aqua and many shades in between, they are chronologically arranged in sets of six. They may appear to be illustrations, but as MacKenny points out “unlike illustration they do not support a text but are a thing in themselves”. For her the watercolours are not just an evocation of the external world, they are also deeply concerned with the intimacy of internal typography.

The postcards begin with the atmospheric Vezelay, the Night Before and ends with Cover Swatches. As the first title suggests, the dark pollarded trees with just a suggestion of a church jutting through and was done before the walk commenced. Even on such a walk there’s a celebration of the everyday. A telephone box and blistered hands vie with the sacred. And there is plenty of humour.

The elegant sensitive portrait of a long-faced sheep finds itself in the company of a headless saint; a favourite fig biscuit with the incorruptible Saint Bernadette. There’s the transmission of a pun in the watercolour of Saint Reveriene head in hand whose name means to dream of nothing.

While MacKenny had none of the paranormal experiences that beset the wonderfully nutty actress Shirley MacLaine, she tells an interesting story behind the large closed cafe umbrellas.

When MacKenny looked at the furled image at the end of the day it reminded her of monks in traditional cowls. The following day she discovered that the square was originally the monastery above the crypt of St Martial.

MacKenny gave herself the task of one drawing a day. Which she didn’t always achieve. In the tradition of traveller artists she chose watercolour because it is immediate, flexible, light and dries fast. Interestingly she had no intention of getting to Santiago. “If I had a destination I would be distracted by the destination and not fully present”. Instead she gave herself a time limit of six weeks.

While she may see herself “loosely as a painter” she is a seeker and a joiner of dots interested in “threshold things”. This pilgrimage and the work as a result of it is really a continuation of her questing nature to try make sense of things. She does as the earliest being did when they looked up at the night sky, making images of the flickering light points in an attempt to understand the great mys-tery and keep the unknown with all its fears at bay.

As she says “essentially we are all trying to navigate, always trying to locate ourselves”.

l The David Krut Gallery is at The Montebello Design Centre in Newlands. Call 021 685 0676.