by Tom McGlynn
James Graham & Sons | April 4 – May 13, 2014
There is an undiscovered world of thought and sensation that begins where painting ends. Exactly where a painting might end, the limit of its “terra cognita,” is the jumping-off point most interesting painters tend to work past. Mary McDonnell’s show of new paintings, Clear Pause, takes the viewer to this risky place with insistent gestures, held in suspension by a sensual, musical use of color. Within the compositional limit of each work McDonnell holds out multiple possible endings, all suspended in the continuity of her palette. She tests the limits of the painterly gesture, suggesting that what she is after is not so much a fixed picture but an open orchestration of the mutable poetry latent within the endlessly generative forms of nature and of life’s experiential meaning. Her work recapitulates an early modernist recognition of a natural, universal correspondence between sound, color, and gesture in the ambitious compositions of Wassily Kandinsky and in the more humble paintings of Arthur Dove. A contemporary kindred aesthetic can be seen in the work of Louise Fishman. The often awkward, almost workmanlike gestures in McDonnell’s paintings are closer to Fishman’s stubborn, yet fluid, mark making than to any residual influence of abstract gestural bravura found in the work of, for instance, Willem de Kooning or Joan Mitchell. These artists are important to the continuance of a tradition of gestural abstraction, a tradition that McDonnell’s work clearly rests upon—but not easily.
Included in the show of new works is a painting entitled “One of the ones” (2013-14), a contradictory complex of gestures that barely hold together as a picture. This tenuous matrix is an invitation extended by the artist to the viewer to share the risk of leaping into a net of unforeseen possibilities. One finds oneself asking, “Why should this image have ended here?” and “What would happen if I marked it up myself there?” There is a radical openness and apparent lack of guile in the multiple layers of horizontal and vertical hatchings in McDonnell’s gestures. Her color palette in the foreground of this piece is almost reduced to that of a child’s poster-paint set: saturated hues of orange, yellow and green which contribute associatively to the work’s accessibility. Her painting reactivates the primal need to fill in space, similar to a preschooler’s drawing full of frenetic fits and starts and prosaic color harmonics. The aforementioned tradition of gestural abstraction can often hover ghostlike over any contemporary attempt to utilize its visceral immediacy, possessing a painting like a re-animated and soulless zombie. The seemingly passive approach that McDonnell takes to the “strong poetry” of this painterly inheritance is in actuality a fiercely active distancing from the “big picture.” By stepping back and recalibrating the very concept of pictorial control, McDonnell intentionally understates her skill and gracefully puts the meaning of mastery in its place, as a means to a vital end rather than as a blustery and hollow subject of symbolic meaning.
“Til it is” (2013 – 14) shows McDonnell’s phenomenal touch pushed farther back into its underlying, evolving nature. This larger painting, measuring 50 by 136 inches, is more spread out and less chromatically contrasting than the densely packed “One Of the ones.” One particular slashing gesture stands out like a fresh wound across the middle section of the three conjoined wood panels. This alizarin focal point leans toward the right, directing one’s eye as a seismograph needle that registers tremors. The “sound” of these tremors corresponds to the artist’s palette modulation from cool, dark, under saturated colors to warm, light, and more highly contrasting hues crowding the center slash. This technique of “crowding the lights” is one J.M.W. Turner employed in his evocations of natural phenomena as vision in process. Although McDonnell’s color shifts here tend to be more abrupt, this work does share an affinity for the organic morphology evident in the chromatic diffusion of Turner’s work.
A smaller work entitled “Who Knows?” (2013 – 14) negotiates the stylistic distance between “Til it is” and “One of the ones” by including less frenetic gestures in blues and grays contrasted by a wedge of saturated red. The title recalls the work of neurophysicists Walter J. Freeman and Christine Skarda who have proposed that a background hum of chaotic brain activity can generate a labile ‘I don't know’ energy from which large numbers of neurons can be summoned in an instant to respond to new and previously encountered sensory stimuli without getting simultaneously confused. This organic source of abstract reasoning on an atomic level suggests the natural logic of getting lost in abstraction on a macro level. With this most recent work, McDonnell boldly summons the “I don’t know” by expressing it with elemental gestures that circumscribe the unknown like twigs bent to remember a freshly blazed path. In Clear Pause, the artist beckons the viewer to get lost with her in a grand ramble, in order to discover some previously unknown possible ends for painting.
TOM MCGLYNN is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in the N.Y.C. area. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper- Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian. He is the director of Beautiful Fields, an organization dedicated to socially- engaged curatorial projects, and is also currently a visiting lecturer at Parsons/the New School.