Examining some of McFadyen’s vast, mainly rectangular canvases, which are stacked on the first floor of his warehouse studio, I felt that, even as I looked at them, his characteristic locations, the discarded cinemas, disused factories and untenanted office blocks, were in the process of transmuting into the remnants of some lost and nearly forgotten civilisation. Goodfellas (2001; above), for instance, reconstructs the blank facade of a nightclub marooned on a road in Dagenham. Here, the activities that the inscriptions above its doors and windows advertise – Music, Dancing – recall vanished anthropological rituals. The club itself, of course, has long ceased to exist.
There is an uncanniness to McFadyen’s compositions, then, that is derived in part from this sense that they commemorate a past that is sliding, at infinitesimal pace, into the realm of myth; a culture that is steadily deliquescing into nature. I was reminded of the image of a steam train “abandoned for many years to the delirium of a virgin forest” that André Breton included in the Surrealist journal Minotaure. McFadyen’s emblems of modernity, too, are susceptible to the treacly delirium of organic decay.
There is a fantastical quality too, which has recently resurfaced more explicitly. Paintings like Nightsters and Nightsters 2 (both 2019), or Nightbus (2020), portray strange, almost mythological figures who are half-gods, half-beasts. Grotesque, they are nonetheless sympathetically rendered. Happening to place these pictures beside Goodfellas, his depiction of the Dagenham club painted 20 years ago, McFadyen explained, in characteristically laconic, mischievous tones, that “it occurred to me that these nightclub pictures might actually depict the inhabitants of such a place”. The 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine speculated that, after the rise of Christianity, the exiled pagan gods disguised themselves in animal shapes and hid in remote places. Here, they reappear as punters in McFadyen’s paintings, subsisting in a club in Dagenham. There they go, riding the nightbus back to their bedsits. Godfellas? Dogfellas?
McFadyen’s paintings are records of the overlooked aspects of everyday life in the metropolitan city and, at the same time, attempts to grasp the future that these details anticipate. A future at once outlandish and real; remote and all too immediate. He is not only a ‘tourist without a guidebook’ as the show’s title suggests, but, as the art critic Tom Lubbock once remarked, a “sightseer” without one. This in a double sense: McFadyen sees the sights that we fail to notice in the streets, and acts as a 21st-century seer.
Jock McFadyen: Tourist Without a Guidebook, Weston Rooms, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 10 April 2022