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.
In a world numbed by ever-louder and more aggressive spectacles, many painters feel the need to compete for attention through ostentatious displays. Perhaps the painters who use such gimmicks continue to think of painting as a medium when, in fact, painting now has value only as a disciplined practice. And as a discipline, as an act of submission, it retains the ability to aestheticize the humbling of consciousness.
McGee isn't implicitly arguing that painting's challenge to the senses is irrevocably tied to a disbelief in the active engagement of the surface on the viewer's terms. He emphasizes instead the power to make the viewer go to uncomfortable lengths in order to grasp a painting's sense. In Skin Deep, a single shoe has come to rest on a luminous red ground. The intensity of the red/yellow horizon both seduces and repels -- a terrifying beauty we can't turn away from. McGee reminds us that today darkness and light are weirdly mixed, even interchangeable. In some cases, the paintings project one's body as darkness, the opacity of matter. One knows its weight or lightness, pain or pleasure. The direct source of McGee's light is never certain but suggests a mutation, the passage through fear and death to unpredictable new life.
Overall, McGee's paintings crackle with iconic ferocity. His images open out from the movements of the brush and simultaneously resolve and dissolve themselves in a dizzying dance of configurations of shoes and spermatozoic creatures. If anything, McGee's paintings are evolving into an ever more active collaboration between stroke and form. By taking on increased speed and intensity, the drippy horizontal grounds of Killjoy, The End of a Bad Summer and Sperm Rush seemingly vibrate with the rhythms released by the union of paint and image. Such intensity, however, isn't achieved so much through a mastery of techniques as by a courageous hand. Image and paint mirror each other in layers of dark, light and reverie. Anxiousness is a seething undercurrent in the work, coming across as that sense that things arenÕt right; we are engaged subliminally even as it wells up and overpowers us. For McGee, anxiousness is an inner malaise always waiting to become an outer catastrophe. His works interpret it as both a latent threat and a disastrous reality.
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But in doing so, McGee also risks laboring like Hercules, sweating like a Titan to convey the subtlest twinges of sensibility at a grandiose scale. If McGee is reluctant to push the work to another stage, his diaristic excursions that once seemed fragile and humanized could very well become mannered and self-indulgent displays of
n outmoded, derivative language. After all, the naive impulse to let go, to lose control and struggle with a painting
an easily become a methodical and formulaic crutch. But for now (and appropriately for a young artist), McGee's ideas are ahead of his ability.
Despite McGee's limited range, I can feel his presence in every inch of "The Wastelands." He not only informs me about himself and his world view, but about my own experience. Through his eyes and brush, I get glimpses of perception into what I have felt (and sometimes thought I've understood exclusively), glimpses that make me feel not alone in the wastelands. As this series of paintings capably shows us, McGee has the courage and intelligence to passionately inform his work with what he sees and feels, regardless of how absurd or simple-minded his renditions may at first appear to the conventional eye and mind. Indeed, the overriding strength of these paintings is in his ability to communicate aliveness. McGee is intensely aware of social situations, responding to people and experiences with an acutely critical, objective observation, as well as a highly intuitive sense that often borders on an understanding beyond mere physical reality. Elusive because it cannot really be striven for, this experience is the benefit of a kind of grace.