‘Cindy Sherman said, I love these’: ex-Beta Band star John Maclean on his paintings | Music

by AryanArtnews
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‘Cindy Sherman said, I love these’: ex-Beta Band star John Maclean on his paintings | Music

Iit was a nail that started it all. “I wanted a painting to hang on it,” says John Maclean, former keyboard player with the Beta Band and award-winning film director. He nods to a wall in his home studio in London where the lone piece of metal still sticks out. Maclean found it difficult to fulfill his mission: initially because he was not entirely satisfied with the paintings he produced; more recently, because people keep buying them.

Becoming a professional artist at the age of 50 was not intentional. Like many people, Maclean found himself painting during the pandemic just for something to do. At the time, he was shooting for his second film – a follow-up to 2015’s Sundance-winning western Slow West – when everything came to a screeching halt. He found some old postcards on eBay, zoomed in on peripheral parts of the landscape that caught his eye (a tree, a waterfall) and tried to replicate them – applying the paint thickly (you wouldn’t guess it was not watercolor) on wooden panels with a psychedelic palette reminiscent of Hockney’s iPad spring paintings. Today, Maclean has arranged several on the floor in front of us, disturbingly pushing them around with his feet as we speak. “Oh well,” he said, giving one a boot. “They are made of wood.”

Maclean was hardly a stranger to painting: he studied at the Edinburgh College of Art and was attending the Royal College of Art in London when he met his fellow Beta Band members in the mid-1990s. But he hasn’t picked up a paintbrush in more than two decades. Still, when he finally felt brave enough to post his work on Instagram, it immediately caught the attention of artist and curator Matthew Higgs, who lectured Maclean at the RCA and was an avid Beta Band fan. Higgs presented him with a show at the White Columns gallery in New York, where he is director.

Waterfall 1 by John Maclean. Photo: Michal Brzezinski

“I can’t remember such an overwhelmingly universally positive response to an artist’s work,” says Higgs from New York via Zoom. “There is something very generous about John’s way of looking, John’s way of thinking. It’s quite disarming.”

Maclean was unsure about exhibiting his work so soon, and the experience of doing so was surreal. “Cindy Sherman was there,” he says, “basically said, ‘I love it.’ I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ And they sold out pretty quickly. It went from zero to very very fast.”

That seems to be how much of Maclean’s career is over. He never saw himself as some kind of guy from a band when he first met the other Beta members. And perhaps that contributed to the fact that the group – who mixed shuffling lo-fi indie with folk, hip-hop and house – always seemed like outsiders among their peers at the tail end of Britpop. “We went against all the cocaine ego trumpeting,” he says.

Indeed, such was their anti-pop star approach, the band were often portrayed in the press as difficult, depressed or wary of fame. “Which was ironic,” says Maclean, “because we weren’t depressed and we really wanted to be famous!” The band gained a cult following with 1998’s The Three EPs compilation, and their desire to cross-pollinate with other genres was ahead of its time.

Although the group broke up in 2004, Maclean has no regrets: “It wasn’t fun everyone the time. And it is documented that Steve [Mason, lead singer] went through ups and downs mentally. But overall we got to do what we wanted in an era when money really wasn’t a big deal. Even if we were playing a very small town in America, we would have a full stage show, projections, movie screens. The record company paid for everything.” He pauses and laughs. “Of course, I think it will take us 10,000 years before we ever make a quint from a record sale.”

Maclean was more than just the band’s keyboardist – he shot videos, created sleeve art and curated the Flower Press fanzine. After the band’s demise, and while Maclean was trying to break into the film industry, it was this work that caught the attention of Michael Fassbender. Somewhat improbably, the actor agreed to film a short film with Maclean on his day off from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – despite the fact that Maclean had never even worked with an actor before.

“I thought, ‘Right, I’m getting his day off.’ He probably spends a lot of his time bored and waiting for set. So I just hop on the back of his bike and we can film in different locations.’” Maclean filmed it all on the same old Nokia phone he used to shoot music videos. “People thought I was crazy. But Fassbender loved the guerrilla aspect of it.” So much so that, after Man on a Motorcycle, the pair reunited for another short, Pitch Black Heist, and then the full-length Slow West. “He was the first person to watch the music videos and not just think it was silly. I will be forever grateful for that.”

Maclean’s journey through music and film helped him figure out what kind of painter he wanted to be. As a young art student, he felt the pressure to be raw and cutting edge, to make art that had a strong message. “It took me 25 years to realize that it’s better if I just forget fashions and trends and make something that looks nice on someone’s wall.”

His work is currently on view in London, but his priority is the film he was working on before the pandemic. He also writes a TV show for NBCUniversal, for which the idea came during a five-hour drive to fetch a freezer from Hull (and no, I’ve never heard anyone say that).

As for music, he’s still dabbling, and is itching for a Beta Band reunion. “It kind of keeps… not coming close, but definitely sticking its head out. I’m ready for that. But there is always one member who is either busy or going through a hard time. It’s hard to get all four of us to agree that it’s the right time.”

Who knows, if he finds any free time in between all of this, he might even paint something to hang on that nail.

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