Larry Groff and Matthew Mattingly interview painter Margaret McCann about her work. McCann also discusses The Figure, a new book she edited, published by Skira/Rizzoli.
McCann notes that "Ideally, [painting is] 'two steps forward, one step back' a forward progression. Textures build up richly this way... My compositional spaces are shaped around my experience looking and painting, rather than from a believable deep space in which objects are placed." She adds: "what I want for the viewer – at first you’re overwhelmed, then your eye experiences everything intimately; maybe that’s how I see the world. That echoes the way I prefer to be close to what I’m painting so stereoscopic vision is activated, and I fully see around things."
The Figure, McCann comments, "responds to David Hockney’s 'Secret Knowledge' to some degree – several artists... openly describe how they use traditional as well as modern techniques like photography, Photoshop, or 3D computer programs... The New York Academy of Art asked me to project-manage a book Rizzoli was interested in doing about the school. Since it’s an academy that has been supported by both Andy Warhol and Prince Charles, and prides itself on both traditional methods, such as anatomy and indirect painting, and on contemporary discourse, I thought it would be compelling to take the long view and explore how and why the classical academic tradition has impacted the present state of figure-based art. "
Painter Mark Trujillo blogs about the influential artist, critic, and teacher Andrew Forge and includes remembrances from artists Ann Gale, Julie Heffernan, Denzil Hurley, Margaret McCann, Paula Heisen, Tommy Fitzpatrick, Mark Brosseau, Steve Hicks, Stuart Elster, and Denis Farrell.
Trujillo writes that "[Forge's] influence was formative for me and I know for many others as well. An ideal tribute to his memory would be a sprawling museum show of his work and the work of artists he influenced, since that's not in my power; I reached out to artists who have generously shared their memories... [Forge] had a palatable way that he would couch something substantial, so that you took the hint as a nudge rather than a jolt; and his words had a gentle, luminous precision."
McCann writes that "the uncertainties of Las Meninas’s imagery feel modern, and resound with postmodern ambiguity. Yet Velazquez’s doubt is not the existential crisis of Prufrock, anxiously asking, 'Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.' Velazquez’s perception seems closer to the cerebral, searching, whimsical one of Cervantes’s Don Quixote—'Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be'—a Spanish Golden Age hit Velazquez would have known... Despite the gravity of its chiaroscuro, Las Meninas imparts a graceful albeit mysterious levity. The evocative illusions and illuminations realized through Velazquez’s sensitivity to light, despite the economy of paint that dissolves representation into abstract brushwork upon close viewing, make it all believably nebulous—delightfully clearly unclear."
Megan Marlatt, Venetian Red Riding Hood, 2006, acrylic and oil on linen, 42 x 48 inches (courtesy of the artist)
Margaret McCann (PT): What does the title of your recent show, “Substitutions for a Game Never Played,” at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond VA, reveal about your sense of play in art-making? Jung said, “… play [belongs] to the child, [appearing] inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth.”
Megan Merlatt (MM): Jung is correct, and as the oeuvre of my toy work grew, so did my empathy toward child’s play and similarities between that world and the artist’s. I became interested in the “anima” in “animation”…what makes dead matter come alive, how do both the child and the artist imbue life into seemingly inanimate objects?
Megan Marlatt, Toy Pile with an Arabian Foot, 2005, acrylic and oil on canvas, 42 x 54 inches (courtesy of the artist)
PT: Large piles of toys gathering dust don’t speak well of our consumerist culture, and my inner hoarder feels slightly ashamed looking at them, but then they also reflect Baudelaire’s statement that “Is not the whole of life to be found [in a great toyshop] in miniature - and far more highly colored, sparkling and polished than real life?” Are the paintings also about pure pleasure?
Megan Marlatt, Profile of Ms. Oyl, 2010, acrylic and oil on round panel, 20 inches (courtesy of the artist)
MM: Yes, and I hope viewers have the same conflicting feelings - both damned and seduced by our plastic consumption. Admittedly, my first response to the toys was that of a visual artist; they were colorful and their forms were smartly engineered and enjoyable to paint and draw. But I’ve always been interested in the human condition and how social issues effect art making, so I couldn’t avoid that most of this stuff was wasteful junk. The more I collected and piled the toys up, the more the paintings began to speak to me of a mass, cultural vertigo…a dizziness of too much stuff, too much stimulation, too much information, too much plastic. Mass consumerism doesn’t just produce masses of junk, it can rob us of our sense of preciousness.
Yet I’m not above being seduced myself, and ironically, plastic can evoke a sense of preciousness, in that inevitably I’d pull from the wreckage a toy from my childhood, or one so well crafted one couldn’t help designating it ‘special’. As I’d paint these individually, as portraits, they turned out to be the ones through which I began to feel the meaning of child’s play in the artist’s studio.
PT: How important is 'degree of difficulty' for you? Paintings like “Venetian Red Riding Hood” show mastery – skillful but non-fussy drawing, clever manipulation of light, beautiful color, and an expressive handling of paint. Their ambition (50+ figures) reminds me of the technical virtuosity academic history painting placed on multi-figure compositions. Can toys be people, too?
MM: Well, I have been painting for a long time, and I’m aging, and life is short – so I feel my efforts are worthy of ambitious instead of half-hearted ones. My intention involves blurring the lines between genres, so that still lifes can read as landscapes, portraits, history painting, etc. But as gravity pulls the toy piles downward over time, and as the toys appear to move during close observation, jiggling in the corners of my eyes as I turned to find the right color on my palette, the blurring continues; I wind up painting 'un-still lifes’. Toys are so 'loaded' culturally and emotionally they can substitute for many things.
John Seed talks to painter Margaret McCann about the portrayal of Atlantic City in many of her recent paintings, currently on view in the exhibition From Rome to Atlantic City at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery, through December 7, 2012.
Seed introduces the conversation: "Getting to know Margaret and her paintings was Faustian: the more I learned the curious I became. In particular, as I wrote about her large three panel painting 'What We Worry?' which is set on the boardwalk of Atlantic City -- re-imagined, re-configured and re-populated in Margaret's mind -- I began to wonder about the meanings and associations of the many pop culture characters she had included. 'McCann has a mind like a tarot deck,' I wrote in my essay, 'jammed with meaningful characters that spill out onto her canvasses in eccentric troupes.' In her personal vision of Atlantic City she uses these characters as a kind of 'American 'commedia dell'arte' troupe'that together form a loving caricature of American culture."
From Rome to Atlantic City, an exhibition of paintings by Margaret McCann, is currently on view at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery, through December 7. In works rich in both allusion and painterly craft, McCann merges careful observation, popular culture, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the tradition of painting. To view McCann's paintings is to understand that popular culture has long been a part of the language of painting. Each of McCann's works is an enigmatic parable inside a dynamic formal structure that is animated by a personal sense of touch and color.
McCann recently agreed to discuss her work with Painters' Table.
Margaret McCann, Lookout, 2008 (courtesy of the artist)
PT: I think we have to start by acknowledging that your Atlantic City series has an unanticipated additional reading after Hurricane Sandy. What We Worry? (2009) depicts the sea looming over a spiraling Piranesi-esque Atlantic City boardwalk. Lookout (2008) depicts the boardwalk being inundated by the sea. How do you feel about this unexpected, yet unavoidable new reading?
MM: During Irene “What We Worry?” and “Lookout” were in my show “Boardwalkers” at the Atlantic City Art Center on the Garden Pier, the front of which was washed away in a previous hurricane – you can still see the broken piers. When the nearby Revel was built, huge amounts of sand were added to the beach so the pier is now ‘sand-locked,’ but it used to extend over the water, so I had to temporarily remove all my work during the storm. On a barrier island the weather and water encircle you and the possibility of high water feels ever-present.
Their meaning is probably more journalistic than metaphysical now. At least I painted them before the tragedy (I’d be too self-conscious now), and the synchronicity supports painting’s power and reach - the kind that draws non-artists to painting. But floods are archetypal events, as Guston’s versions express. I was struck by how much my painting “Water Country” resembles the roller coaster washed offshore in Seaside Heights.
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.