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El Mac: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

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Larger than life, the work of Miles "Mac" MacGregor uses the streets as a way to continue the tradition of portraiture. Born in Los Angeles, the self-trained artist focuses on subjects that celebrate and reflect the cultural history of the southwest. Introduced to graffiti and tagging as a teenager, it was the materials and process involved in spray painting that captivated the budding artist more than writing letters. Encouraged by an artistic mother, the artist slowly honed his craft, and developed a unique method of painting that is unmistakable fresh and technically brilliant.

The image of a Navajo Weaver rises above the Los Angeles landscape as Mac applies the final touches to the four-story portrait via his lift. The profile of the elderly woman looks upward in a proud pose that is both loving and distinguished. Painted on the side of the historic American Hotel in the Arts District, Mac knows these murals are not possible without the help and support of others. Collaboration is a part of graffiti and it's a practice that Mac embraces, since the city is essentially a large shared space where his work lives. Set against the work of noted artists Nuke and Kofie, the layered mural honors indigenous peoples and invisible histories that are often forgotten.

In an era when the skill set of painting realistically has slowly receded from art schools, it's ironic that a man without a formal art education has taken up the baton of representational portraiture. For hundreds of years, the wealthy, powerful, and influential had their portraits painted. These images typically display the sitter's occupation and/or interests, a luxury of the higher class. Mac like many artists learning their trade began by painting portraits of friends and family members but this output eventually progressed to conceptually heavier material. Choosing to paint a series of anonymous Mexican laborers, these paintings honored those that would not be typically featured in the history of portraiture.

El Mac mural. | Photo: Eric Heights.
El Mac mural. | Photo: Eric Heights.

Mac's finished murals are so well regarded they are sometimes seen as unofficial monuments throughout the city. The artist is humbled by the positive reactions and knows these temporary contributions have a much more powerful impact during their life than traditional studio work. The massive and realistic proportions baffle onlookers and are an accessible entry point into the work. Collectively as a body, they celebrate, honor, and speak into human nature and the importance of truth and beauty. The small details of what makes someone an individual become giant gestures to be admired.

Mac utilizes an application of spray paint that appears to vibrate and ripple on the wall. By repeating his lines over and over, they echo and create an almost audible sound that is smooth and refined. The artist employs a cap on his aerosol cans that applies paint in the shape of a circle, which leaves more pigment on the edges and negative space in the middle. The repetition of the lines has a hypnotic effect that exudes an importance. It's an aura, a field of energy that is unseen, yet felt between the convergence of these elements. While each portrait is typically soft from a distance, the crosshatching and line work bursts outward with exuberance.

El Mac mural. | Photo: Vallarie and Arturo Enriquez.
El Mac mural. | Photo: Vallarie and Arturo Enriquez.

The history of Mexican and Chicano culture is also constant in Mac's work. A student of art history, his use of Catholic iconography is unmistakable. While he portrays everyday people, the juxtaposition of a mother and child, the use of blue cloak, or an implied halo around the head of one his sitters signifies the importance of the divine and the role of the church. Mac shares "...that it's a visual language that extends back to classical times." Although not overtly religious himself, Mac sees himself as a spiritual person. He does not seek to teach biblical narratives or virtues but instead references this symbology and imparts its significance to his sitters, making the commonplace extraordinary.

Bringing attention to those without the power or position to raise it themselves, Mac's portraits follow a long history. The humble, meek, and those unspoken for are often featured by his artistic heroes Caravaggio or Michelangelo. Each artist used studies of common folks to stand in historic roles. It's from these luminaries that Mac pulls much of his influence: "When I look at classic European work there is an energy to it" the artist explains -- an energy he tries to embed in his own work.

Mac's El Paso and Juárez murals are excellent examples of this energy applied to a political framework. The murals feature a different image on each side of the U.S./Mexican border and are a manifestation of Mac's soft yet powerful voice. Each portrait addresses the violence and corruption with border politics and crime. The first portrait features a young woman whose mother was kidnapped and killed while the other is a man whose son was murdered by the police. The proud and dignified images exude hope and resilience yet simultaneously raise awareness to the awful conditions for those living on the border and the struggles these families have undergone. Mac's ability to address difficult issues is shrouded in beauty and it makes the harsh truth palpable.

Mac sees himself as a perfectionist. This attention to detail takes a toll and the artist even sees the physical process of painting murals similar to a devotional work. He shares that "The process takes a lot of time and energy and I hope this energy translates into the meaning." Challenged by creating difficult images, Mac succeeds by making more than a technically executed portrait; they instead are social and spiritual reminders of our humanity.

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