Jazz Show

David McGee's works riff on one another, like a certain musical genre

Its companion piece, Omeros I (2003), is perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibit. Five feet high and ten feet long, oil on unstretched canvas, the single figure that fills the white field is based on da Vinci's Horse of San Marcos, a recurring motif (one of several) in this body of work. Its large black mass is scarred where the paint has been scratched and scraped away, suggesting the passage of time and the accretion of experience. As if the sheer size and the ravaged paint surface weren't enough, the horse's neck ends in a humanoid face etched with gargoylish anguish. I'm not sure how this connects to the canoe -- or to Walcott's poem, for that matter -- but it's unforgettable.

Much like Picasso or Pollock, McGee makes art -- no matter its subject matter -- that's ultimately about himself. It's about his place in the world, his experience of the world, his emotional response to the world. All of McGee's work is autobiographical. But the imagery, as in The Black Sea Paintings series (all 2003), can become so personal as to exclude the viewer. These canvases are a major departure for McGee. Gone are the baroque gestures and mannerist colors. Gone are the almost classical, formal alignments of composition. These paintings, of various dimensions, are for the most part loosely divided into quadrants that seem to have little to do with each other. Collage elements -- Scrabble tiles, fabric, childhood photos of the artist, Sunday comic strips, drawings -- appear in McGee's work for, I believe, the first time. (He has often turned to his progenitors for inspiration, and the presiding spirits for The Black Sea Paintings seem to be Robert Rauschenberg and David Salle.)

Individually, these works have little internal coherence. But walk back and forth and note the recurrence of motifs and images between the paintings -- Milo the Mule-Face Boy from Cold Mountain reappears as a simple outline repeated four times in Virgin, as does a cartoonish dinosaur/dragon from Intellects of the 1980s. They begin to riff off one another, developing conversations between themselves like the musicians in a jazz combo. These Black Sea Paintings have an improvisatory energy, one that doesn't seem quite focused yet, but which nonetheless draws you in.

McGee isn't afraid of tackling daunting subject matter 
-- like, say, God.
Arturo Sanchez
McGee isn't afraid of tackling daunting subject matter -- like, say, God.


Through February 7; 713-223-8346,
DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346

As the exhibition's subtitle suggests, The Black Sea Paintings are the heart of this show. But "Tetélestai: Notebooks of the Black Sea" contains other notable works, especially the wall painting Three Abstract Paintings for the Blind (2003), which consists of three words painted on the east walls of the gallery: "Beauty," in a lovely, cursive script; "God," in a strong, broad font; and "Virtue," in austere, upright lettering. As McGee is one of Houston's most intelligent and audacious artists, I would expect him to tackle subjects no less daunting. Even if the waters are choppy, and the destination uncertain, as long as McGee keeps scattin' like this, I'll sign on for the journey.

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