Edwin Landseer’s ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) looks like it should be on a cereal box. This is not to say that it doesn’t have a certain dramatic beauty, but this large, heroic painting of a muscular stag pausing, knowingly, atop a Scottish glen, has acquired something of a corny nostalgia. On display at the National Gallery, it provided a rose-tinted counterpoint to Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s biting satire ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (2012) on view down the hall, with Maclean offering a sardonically raised eyebrow to Landseer’s romanticised and almost cartoonish Caledonia.
Maclean’s video work was created in the frenzied build up to the Scottish referendum, and sees the lion and unicorn from the Royal Coat of Arms personified by the artist in outrageously lurid get-up, lampooning the ridiculous regalia of power. Voiced by archive audio of a petulant Jeremy Paxman as the English lion and a slurring Alex Salmond as the Scottish unicorn, in one scene they squabble over fiscal policy while glugging viscous North Sea oil out of crystal glasses, and stuffing their faces with Union Jack cake. In another, Maclean lip-synchs to the Queen’s 1957 Christmas broadcast, draped in pearls and Union flags, caked in doll-like make-up, reflecting that many may see her as ‘a remote figure’.
Maclean has a memorable style, taking the satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, with a nod to Hogarth and Gillray, and leading it cackling into the sickly and slightly twisted aesthetic of children’s television. All this makes for an overwhelming visual experience, as do the photographic prints (all 2013), displayed alongside. The prints are less affecting, partly due to the powerful familiarity of the archival audio, which provides so much of the uncanny humour in Maclean’s video work. Drawing on the iconographical stereotypes of Scottish identity - including the mildly horrifying 2014 Commonwealth Games mascot: a small, friendly, thistle – in these prints Maclean presents a series of tableaux vivants in smooth, digital technicolour, drawing pertinent parallels between the melodramatic staging of religious scenes from the history of art and the seemingly innocuous visual language of national pride.
Maclean works predominantly with digital video, using green screen technology to cast herself in roles from David Cameron to an Adidas-striped Oliver Twist in ‘Please Sir…’ (2014), which explored greed and class in Western capitalist society. ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ has all the hallmarks of her distinctive visual style: the combination of glossy, synthetic colour and a gleeful humour that makes her work instantly likeable, with a nightmarish quality through aggressively grotesque close-ups of gluttonous consumption and the tacky opulence of her lurid costumes. Watching this, particularly under the ominous cloud of the current political climate, felt like watching the news in a hallucinogenic fever dream: familiar concepts are twisted and warped but ultimately grounded in a harsh reality. Like the very best of caricature, you are drawn in by the camp frivolity and candy-coloured rainbows and then spat out again, cruelly, wondering if you can possibly learn from the experience.