Because the (admittedly fictional) Pevensie children discovered a magical portal to the land of Narnia in their caretaker’s wardrobe, I’m convinced that my house must somewhere conceal a gateway to the fairy-tale oil paintings of British artist Stephen Mackey, a land rich in haunting symbolism, as beautiful as it is disquieting.
Inspired by oil paintings from the 17th and 19th century, Mackey’s twilight realm is composed of velvety soft colors and textures. It’s a deceptively idyllic place full of stately homes, lush gardens, and long shadows. Here I imagine everyone, even the animals, speak in whispers and barely the gentlest breeze ever blows. Whether a scene in medias res or a formal portrait, each painting paired with a cryptic title hints at a story I desperately long to read.
In fact, in a 2016 interview with Klassik Magazine Mackey confirmed my suspicion that his paintings hint at the possible existence of broader tales:
“My works are definitely narrative paintings, but I prefer to keep them slightly unreadable, like an illustration to a book you’ve never read. I tend to use symbolism that is exciting but ambiguous like moons, haloes, skeletons etc; often married to objects that might suggest narrative in a more specific way such as scissors, syringes or suitcases. Things like flowers and insects are used primarily as decoration, but they may have a symbolic or narrative value independent of my intentions.”
There’s something about these thoroughly mysterious, impeccably dressed, perfectly poised women, children, and animal-human hybrids that feels uncannily real. Perhaps Mackey has a portal of his own and these enigmatic individuals actually sit for their portraits, speaking volumes with their eyes whilst bees and spiders rest on their gowns or butterflies drink their blood.
If Mackey has been granted access as the official portraitist of the inhabitants of this delusively enchanting land, he is also the keeper of their secrets, painting like a magician performs sleight of hand. For everything he appears to reveal, there is even more hinted at, but not quite seen. That which we are shown distracts us from darker doings kept in shadow.
I’d like to think that, in order to reproduce them faithfully, Mackey has learned over the course of numerous visits how to discretely observe clandestine meetings with skeleton and animal suitors or the feeding habits of carnivorous flora. He knows how to track the comings and goings of somnambulists and solitary ghosts – both living and dead. He has mastered the art of stealthily watching tea parties that inevitably turn into arcane rituals and summonings.
But something about Mackey’s oeuvre also tells me he needs to tread carefully. I suspect that, much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, lingering too long in this world will turn him into a permanent resident and in turn enable one of these inscrutable women to walk among us.