A conversation between Landon Mackenzie & Jen Aitken
September 14, 2023

From 2006 to 2010, Jen Aitken worked as Landon Mackenzie's studio assistant in Vancouver. Thirteen years later, Aitken and Mackenzie are being exhibited side by side in our gallery.


Jen Aitken: I’ve seen both shows now and can say they work beautifully together. I remember preparing your painting suitcase as your studio assistant  whenever you were going on a trip, and thinking that was such a genius move, turning every hotel room into a temporary studio. Why is travelling so important to your practice, and what drew you to Sayulita in particular?


Landon Mackenzie: Travelling! Yes. It puts one in a suspended space. In taking a month in Sayulita, I was in part re-creating my mother’s and paternal grandmother’s escapes to Mexico in the 1960s. For me, a week of a sun holiday is fine, but after that I get antsy and like to have a way to filter and respond to all the (excess) input around me. Temporary set-ups are so important and something always transfers back to the main work.

I have to say I remember a young Jen Aitken coming to my Drawing class door at Emily Carr, saying the artist Doug Walker had suggested she approach me to be my assistant when she moved to study art in Vancouver. From that moment on we dealt with anything in my way on Fridays! A life saver for me as I juggled a domestic life, students/teaching, studio production and shipping for shows. I took longer residencies when my kids were older, but most short trips were as a guest speaker/visiting artist at art schools or exhibitions and various places with hotels! 


As well as helping me, you worked with Vancouver photographer Marion Penner Bancroft and studied sculpture with the formidable Liz Magor! We each worked in such different historical disciplines, approaches, material technologies, and had unique relationships to chaos and order, studio patterns etc. Do you remember how you could be so smart, so clear and direct about claiming mentorship with three strong female artist role models so early in your career?


Jen Aitken: I've always felt more lucky than smart, working for you and Marian in Vancouver, and for Doug before that in Toronto, you made being an artist seem possible to me in a real way. As an instructor Liz stretched my brain to new limits, and then as mentors you and Marian showed me how to structure a whole life as an artist, what to expect, what to protect, how to negotiate everything.


The circle has been a consistent motif in your work for some time, and takes on so many macro and micro references. The circles in your new works are made by tracing found objects, does naming those real-life tactile anchors (whiskey tins, bowls, etc.) change the way you think about them at all? How have you stayed engaged with this shape across multiple bodies of work?

Landon Mackenzie: The circle is a very satisfying shape to make. I started with an obsession with full moons which are sort of forbidden as too corny, but also universal. Over recent years, Time Machine became an ongoing theme that emerged and in these bigger paintings and I have been using templates of circular things for a while. This was an experiment to make them smaller and you are right, this is the first time I named them.


You also use a lot of interesting shapes. Do have secret names for them, or keep track of what they mean to you?


Jen Aitken: I don’t have names for shapes, although there are certainly some repeated shapes that emerge out of my persistent use of 45- and 90-degree geometry. I always think of the repeated shapes like faces or figures, with different sort of emotional resonances. Sometimes sculptures get secret nicknames like “the bird one” or “the grand piano” etc. but I’ll never share them because I like hearing other people’s associations.


I've been thinking a lot lately about the interior imaginative world of an artist—a kind of private mental landscape—and how that gets filtered out into objects that exist in public and have social and historical meaning. I've always seen you as a rare artist who glides between these two realms so naturally. How do you do it?! Or, is there anything you can share that you've noticed over the years about the transition from idea to real painting?


Landon Mackenzie: Actually, here is a full circle: Liz Wylie, who also happens to be your brilliant art historian/curator mother, helped me conceptualize the idea of parallel journeys when she organized a survey of my works on paper (1975-2015). The idea that one’s solo artistic journey runs parallel to a so called ‘real’ life is accurate. I didn’t turn to painting till I left graduate school in the late 1970’s thinking I could just paint in secret, so I created quite a bond with the wet life of paint in my first studios in Montreal. It’s the dry version that goes public. 


Jen, you’ve gone against the grain with making stand-alone, purposeful and quiet objects. Around you in the art schools and artworld others exhibit forms of installation art, often with hybrid technologies, incorporating ‘found’ objects or components built by skilled-others through conceptual instructions. By contrast, you are minimal in your aesthetics and a maximalist in your methods! There is no symbolic or identity reference available to the viewer but we are free to make up what we want. You’ve stripped away colour and curly-cues in favour of the simple, stark and evocative? Can you comment on why you’re drawn to these choices?


Jen Aitken: A long time ago another great mentor told me to “follow the work.” To let go of my ego and what I think I want my work to be, and open up to what it wants to be. So with everything I do I try to let my work be a kind of world you can walk into, a place to just feel like a perceiving being for a moment, not interpreting or deciphering, just stopping and receiving. All of the sort of aesthetic “stripping away” I do is in service of that kind of openness. 


You've built an incredible and impressive career, and have been committed to your artwork for over fifty years (if we start counting at your BFA). I want to ask what it feels like to be inside of that—what feels the same and what feels different about making art now vs. when you were in your thirties?


Landon Mackenzie:  I still feel as if I am in my perpetual thirties! I am more creaky and get less done, but I have learned that I am at my best if I feel like a brat. At the studio I change my clothes and put my hair in a pony tail and procrastinate. I still value assistants to help assemble and gesso the big ones. The main thing is that I have set up enough patterns to succeed. I started art school at NSCAD at age 17, being too impatient to finish high school or cope with family life, and impatience it turns out is also a virtue in the studio. 


Can you say something about your own patience or impatience? I love that your drawings appear to be ‘thinking-diagrams’, maybe to figure out what shapes resonate enough to go further to be a big committed (time sink) object, or maybe they are completely independent of the big stuff? Be it an ark with a wire or pencil vs the process to let the cement dry, or weld steel, how does patience and time figure?


Jen Aitken: I love this question. I talk a lot about slowing down in my work, but honestly I feel impatient a lot of the time. I think all artists are chasing that particular high of a new idea taking form, and the momentum hurling you towards those fleeting moments can easily slip into impatience. (Maybe this is when it’s a virtue…) It doesn’t really matter if a piece takes months or days to finish, the feeling of urgency is the same for me. I feel more patient on a larger scale, working out of my apartment for eight years, for instance, or staying based in Toronto all this time.


Landon Mackenzie: Lastly, I’m so pleased to be showing together and to see how the geometries play out! You’ve had an incredible run of thoughtful, independent production and worthy acknowledgement (McMichael project and recent Power Plant show among other highlights). I know this critical recognition and exposure will help you along the long path ahead.


Jen Aitken: Landon, it is truly an honour and a very personal pleasure to be showing beside you! I’m happy our paths continue to cross.