“It’s our 16th year anniversary,” says gallery director Ails McGee of her eponymous gallery According to McGee, “We had innovative plans with big innovative events to celebrate. Performances, installations, digitally illuminated projections - it was an everything but the kitchen sink approach. All of that was kicked into the long grass on the 23rd March. Since then, I’ve gone back to the drawing board, so to speak.” The Tower Street gallery has a long tradition of provocative exhibitions and attendant celebrations with the likes of Sir Ian Botham, author Richard Milward, and CBE Dianne Wilcocks cutting the ribbons on events that led to packed spaces and healthy sales. COVID and its accompanying quarantine have led to a radical rethink with crowds and technology subordinated in favour of what sounds like a back to basics approach. “It’s actually been very liberating,” Ails says in her studio, “‘Basics’ sounds like a cop out. Painting is traditional but it's anything but simplified. When I was at Art School in the ‘90s I was told by art teachers that Painting as a medium was bourgeois, colonial, and patriarchal, and, above all, dead!” she laughs, “Well, as a gallery, we’re here to help hammer home that the rumours of Painting’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It hasn’t gone away, it’s been in fine fettle for hundreds of years, in fact it’s never been more relevant.”
It is the recent parsimonious proposals from politicians on essential exercise that helped inspire Ails to pick up her paint brush. “I remember thinking whilst I was alone in the middle of Rowntrees Park at midday, there were certain people who would have reported me to the police. It was a hard time to go outside and watch the season change. I don’t have much memory of seeing the cherry blossom this year as it was a complicated thing just to go outside and enjoy nature. So I thought to myself, if I can’t experience the real thing, why not paint it?”
Before establishing According to McGee gallery with her husband and business partner Greg McGee in 2004, Ails was a successful painter, with exhibitions in her native Kelso in the Scottish Borders and around Yorkshire. Her painterly arc flattened with the arrival of children (“three under 3 years old at one point!”) and her forays into charity work and art enterprise The Artillery. The arid aspects of COVID have helped her focus on how important painting is to her, “It’s everything. It forces you to see more clearly and, though it can be frustrating trying to harness what you see, all those shades, curves, and colours, it’s the mixture of poetry, prophecy, and religion that is so empowering and addictive.”
Building on her experiences of nature in the Borders, Ails continues to concentrate on the bitter beauty of the North, this time basing her compositions on the visual power of the North East coast. “It’s funny, seascapes come with the unfair caveat that they are twee and calming, but it’s the opposite of that which intoxicates me and which I hope I am beginning to harness in my paintings. The sea can be savage and changeful, on the point of bursting into full bloom, but in a painting it is rarely twee.”
Bringing her latest collection to the commercial market does not quail Ails, “It’s the perfect time. I’m in good company - Freya Horsely and David Baumforth are internationally well regarded masters of their craft. And, to be honest, I have already made some pre-exhibition sales. So I am in a very fortunate position. I am producing paintings, I get to hang them in my gallery, and I am selling them to collectors who enjoy the visuals of a sea in constant change.”
The difficulties of running a gallery in the time of COVID are surmountable, she says. “We launch on Saturday, but it’s a day long happening. The gallery won’t be too busy at any given point, we have the attendant sanitisers, and we’re happy to welcome anyone who wants to come - old friends, artists, clients, collectors, new collectors. Quarantine has cut culture short for too long. We can’t wait to get back in the groove.”
‘’Return of the Painter: The Sea, the Sky, the City” launches on Saturday 18th July, 12pm, featuring art by Ails McGee.
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