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What Moves Us Deeply?

David McGee's paintings at Texas Gallery are a fresh, moody exploration of the difficulty of being human

To be a painter is to assume an immense load of cultural baggage. After more than a century of questioning and refining, what in painting still has potential? A painted picture has taken on a kind of eternal identity unimaginable in other kinds of artwork. The problem is not whether we like painting or not, but how to approach it as a vehicle for collective experience.

Coming at a moment when the mere act of painting seems to imply an almost foolhardy degree of faith in the visual, David McGee's exhibit of nine works at Texas Gallery, "The Wastelands," reaffirms the conviction that the canvas can be a site where narrative trauma unfolds, that it can function as an outlet for a creative and social mind. Produced over the last year by the Houston artist, the series of paintings has a power that is unaffected and clear. McGee is a young, old-fashioned Expressionist, yet his work feels fresh, antithetical to most of the theoretical painting that is so hot and abundant. McGee is firmly committed to the act of painting and is willing to risk the arbitrary delights, horrors and hallucinations of the imagination. Accordingly, he makes highly personal works of a pronounced and haunting romanticism.

McGee seems deeply interested in not only investing his art with meaning, but also in using his paintings to explore the difficulty of being human. In his vigorously brushed surfaces and moody vertical or horizontal spatial disjunctions, black shoes fall into the states that all souls are heir to: confusion, disorder, unease, ecstasy, fear, electrifying anxiety, even willful self-destruction. Their tarlike black and acidic yellow grounds create an equally toxic backfire of psychic and physical pollution. They force us to look back to where we have come from, then to surmise where we may be going. Such turning points evoke spontaneous doubt and hope, anguish and ambition, a sense of loss and opportunity, of memory and change. Too raw for some and too ambiguous for others, McGee's paintings may give scant comfort to those with more escapist tastes.

What moves us deeply? In this environment of conditioned response, images become all too familiar. We are not encouraged to think, nor do we feel a need to react. Seldom are we overwhelmed by thoughts or intrinsically engaged by the visual image. McGee, however, paints in a manner that extrapolates visceral emotions and ideas. By surrounding ourselves with McGee's poetic cycle, we enter with the characters -- the floating boots, shoes and spermatozoa -- into a frozen, rarefied moment of memory. At other times we feel removed, only remote observers of the particular scene, helpless to act. In general, the paintings convey the unsettling quality of something about to fall apart, a captured moment of flux. Their fluidity makes one think of blood, sex, AIDS, life and death. Images of high and low life skid around and take pratfalls in a way that seems out of control.

But McGee goes further in his investigations than most young artists exploring similar territory; he reconfigures the painting's surface materiality as a kind of romp through various "weathering" techniques that involve a further splintering of the imagery into a tapestry of rippling, pock-marked worlds, revealing his fascination with the physical properties of paint. Made of oil and lacquer on newsprint and canvas, the surfaces of paintings like The Dark Wood, The Flatterers or Bronwyn's Red Rain seem to crack uncontrollably. One could even compare his palpable newsprint surfaces to skin, conveying a sense of holding things back, in place, resting tensely over what they repress and conceal. Indeed, "The Wastelands" is redolent with themes of life and death -- not only a physical death, but also a broader social, cultural and aesthetic demise, perhaps the death of ideas. Nonetheless, McGee's paintings are very much alive with intensity and energy.

There is a continuous play of opposites in McGee's paintings: between outer and inner worlds; between clarity and obscurity; between traditional painterly expressiveness and postmodern strategies of appropriation and repetition. His unabashed sensuality and attention to process -- to gesture and traces of the hand -- give his works an undeniably tactile presence, while his imagery reaches down to the primitive and primal. Accordingly, McGee forces the passive viewer into an active dialogue on the conditions of viewing. Forming an environment of sorts, the paintings throw us back into a heightened perception of ourselves within the gallery space, as well as increase our sensitivity to the temporal and physical conditions guiding our approach to the work itself. They force us to confront the need of painting to plumb certain disagreeable depths of materiality. By literally pushing that reality closer to the viewer in the form of encrustations of newsprint on the painting's surface, McGee lends the confrontation a cultural flavor as well as a purely visual one.

Almost everything that is valuable about painting derives from the drag it imposes on our consciousness. Painting has body; it is a medium burdened not only by its physicality but also by its history. The promise of painting is that if one gives oneself to it, rather than trying to bend it to some preconceived use, it will yield material that defies account.

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