On ViewRick Wester Fine Art
May 4–June 30, 2023
When painting is purely constructive, it necessarily exists as a trace of two competing forces, an attempt to reconcile inner vision with a material reality that will never submit perfectly to what is now merely a memory. Painting, as medium, is always just that—a vehicle to channel things from one world to another; that it should encounter some friction seems natural. In Tom McGlynn’s work, that friction is more than significant.
The paintings, made of carefully calibrated swatches of color against subdued grounds, might be likened to literal palettes, like a photographer’s color checker, a tray of watercolors, or even a set of eyeshadows, but those would be uneasy metaphors. Though rectangular, the swatches are absent a grid, and the colors adhere to no theory. It is exceedingly subjective which orange, which blue, which brown should be chosen and how far it should extend. And though there might be a perfect square in one of these paintings, their compositions eschew geometry in a way that makes such a nameable shape seem incidental. What is more present than any compositional harmony is the sense that each line and each color was the long result of hand aligning with perception, readjusted in smaller and smaller increments. The works stem from studies on paper and the computer, but their lines are dependent on the relative accuracy of a thumb pressing along a length of tape. Crucially, there are brushstrokes up close and edges perfected by hand, so each swatch is treated individually. The paintings are neither tests nor proofs of concept, but real substance being pushed around. It is difficult to achieve such clean surfaces without making the work about surface itself, and McGlynn’s relative level of finish is just precise enough to allow for a productive vibration between object and image.
Pareidolia—the tendency to see meaning in random images—is certainly at play here, but it is less about the psychology of pattern recognition and closer to what Meyer Schapiro described in his account of an abstract painter coming upon a mathematician’s blackboard filled with proofs and formulas: “for the artist these elementary shapes have a physiognomy; they are live expressive forms.” McGlynn doesn’t resist associative readings of his work, and his titles are frequently suggestive. Manner (2021), for example, prompts all sorts of etymological associations, but its seven colored swatches seem symbolic of the human figure (a head, a torso, four limbs, and an orange sun in the righthand corner—like a disassembled inukshuk). The shapes’ characters are determined solely by their relative horizontality, as they all share similar chromatic intensities. Wild Catch (2022) is more literal, its various blues conjuring ice trays in a Chinatown fish market. It is easy to see these as paintings that come out of walking around the city, their colors so confusingly measured and magisterially backlit-seeming. McGlynn has previously mined the aesthetic language of advertising for his abstractions, and this current phase almost transforms litter in the gutter to those soft shards of light that filter onto cathedral floors. But there is a softness to these colors that opens them up to much more than heroism. It is almost a middling effect, the way that McGlynn’s sensitive grounds of salmon, olive, and porcelain manage the contrasts of their various swatches, fastening them together and eschewing hierarchy.
In one panel, there are two corners of brick red and sap green, with intermediaries of bright clay and cerulean, and in opposing corners, a warm, extended navy and a punctuatingly succinct black. Elsewhere, there is a pair of pale yellows that push forward while a nearby chartreuse melts into its hazelnut ground. And in the show’s titular painting, a monolithic black rectangle somehow anthropomorphizes the nearby mint, plum, chocolate, and scarlet into a grinning, bug-eyed picture. These are more constellations than architecture—no borders aligning with each other and everything nudging against some invisible web. Whatever force keeps McGlynn’s swatches apart from each other also seems to hold them in their various clusters and swarms.
It is difficult to name what these paintings do, but in front of them I believe in what is at stake, as the rest of the room collapses into similar shards. There is the comedy of language coming up short against sensation, but there is also the slowing of actual experience. Entoptic effects run free—eye floaters swim between swatches and retinal burns overlap edges in orange-blue shadows—lending weight to this suspended world. It is common to notice oneself breathing, but much rarer to be aware of seeing as it is happening. The failed astronomer Percival Lowell wrote that sight was “our only far viatic sense … untrammeled of the grosser adjunct of the flesh to penetrate what were otherwise unfathomable space,” but of course, sight, like all senses, is bound by biology to the imperfections and compulsions of each unique viewer. McGlynn’s paintings make me aware of the layered density involved in seeing, as if I were present for the moment where each of these swatches might lock into place. The power of the compositions lies in that stopped potential, where you can feel the friction of each element against the next. They remind me that the eye contains muscle, and that looking is a reciprocal act.