Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Mary McDonnell "Touch" at James Graham and Sons (Sept 25- Nov 7,2009)
Mary McDonnell’s recent show of paintings and drawings at James Graham and Sons defies easy description not because it is esoteric or abstract, not because it is automatic writing, and not because it isn’t some version or quotation of an art historical genre, it might be because the work is so credibly “there”. The show is entitled “Touch”. Manipulated gesture is inscribed upon subtly suppressed fields of chromatic paint layers that pulsate almost indiscernibly like veins beneath the skin. The human feel is evident, apotheosized and amplified, by her deployment of hand- made brushes and implements, often constructed large, and awkwardly vulnerable to registering irregular marks. Like the pathos telegraphing, ill -fitting shoes of the silent comedian, these touch go- betweens heighten our awareness of the grace of our own disheveled beings. In two large drawings on paper, one of which the artist painted with a broom dipped in India ink, the ragged horizontal gestures make a quizzically blank statement about vital nerve endings. These marks are also analogous to the windshield wiper trace of dune grass blades as they get whipped back and forth in place on the sand. The wonder at the mechanics of the mark making overtakes the natural phenomena itself, the gesture inscribing both the rooted plant and the capricious wind with uncanny symmetry.
The fineness of the artist’s multiply over- painted fields can be reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s sense of elegant microcosmic surfaces. The gestures inscribed upon them have a more culpable immediacy than those of Cy Twombly, which they sometimes come close to resembling. Some of the larger strokes can also bring to mind Gerhard Richter’s similarly implement- generated abstractions. McDonnell’s work doesn’t share Richter’s deep cynicism but instead exudes a base but not entirely un-romantic humanism. These works don’t suggest a libretto to the existential opera often conjured by abstract expressionist tendencies, nor do they invoke inhuman nature in their inevitable “there ness”. This work eludes these types of descriptions. These stylistic references don’t really get at what she’s doing with this work.
Experiencing McDonnell’s paintings can be unsettling in how they can objectify your own essence. One is reminded of the Ad Reinhardt cartoon in which a painting accusingly addressing a man looking quizzically at its abstract composition saying” And what do you represent?”
In McDonnell’s case, the artwork isn’t aggressively interrogating the viewer like the cartoon, or putting one in one’s place like Olympia’s disinterested gaze, or Pollock’s vastness. It’s neither nurture nor nature nagging you in her work but rather a cool, humane empathy that addresses with a complicit ,palpable emotion. These are gut -wringing machines brilliantly disguised as lyrical abstractions.
Posted by Tom McGlynn at 12:30 PM