INFINITE FORCES: A RUMINATION ON MEANING AND IMAGES IN A TIME OF POLITICAL GLUT, AND ALSO, RYAN MCLAUGHLIN’S PAINTINGS
Ryan McLaughlin’s out-there paintings have a surprising way of invoking the unseen, puzzling the viewer, requiring the most out of perception.
I happened upon McLaughlin’s Prius Wig exhibition by chance, catching glimpses of it through Adams and Ollman’s windows on an aimless wander downtown. To me, Prius Wig is a tribute to imagination. It’s a series of seven relatively small paintings that are meaningful despite and because of an abandonment of typical sense and convention. The work is handsome enough (though not too prettified) and off-the-cuff at a glance; with little material, and still less historical, these kinds of pictures reward longer looking.
On my first visit, I could only see the show from the sidewalk because the gallery was shut; as I walked off I got to wondering. Why paintings and why now? What’s the use in fragmentation, and does art need to be so-called useful? There’s definitely been useful, even necessary post-election or socially-conscious art that urges specific action (First 100 Days is exemplary of this, and so is Stolen Angels). But what else, I wonder, about our era might nonsense or the non-verbal have to offer? What else is there to see?
First seeing this show, I got the enormous sense that this work, and art absorption, entertains another side of life — the one that’s independent of linguistic expressivity, and more specifically, Trump-era fear and the spectacle that we’ve all grown weary of hearing about at every turn. There’s humor to be offered, but it’s also not at all one-note. The atmospheres and figures of the paintings often seem gloomy or otherworldly, without any histrionics at all. They also go beyond the identities that images ordinarily might adhere to, and the forms the paintings assume make naming them (still-life or landscape) unnecessary. The paintings assert themselves as they are, and I found myself to be particularly unburdened by this during my visit. Category and resemblance can be so tiring.
One of McLaughlin’s paintings (Untitled (2017)) shows a cave-painting-like bull — what’s that doing there? And to quote Chico Marx, “why a duck” in the other one flanked by bodiless eyes of a similar style? The absurdist stripe isn’t at all out of place here. The Prius Wig paintings bear amusing, various, apparently misplaced images and signs you want to decode, or just enjoy. There are, for instance, what look to be strewn kids toys and broken block letters in Untitled (2017) that, along with direct imagery reminiscent of childhood days, also have an occult sense. They look like the kind of figures that, when arranged just so, may or may not possess the power to unlock unforeseen passages or even whole worlds. Maybe too, like Lana Del Rey’s presidential spell, they can even set certain like events into motion. In any case, such infinite forces (including the otherwise mundane or harebrained) give way to moments of vision.
There are the seemingly banal autumnal tropes like the Jack-o-Lantern, and fall leaves in one of two paintings aptly titled Demeter (2017). These elements are apparent vestiges of an ordinary world but they also contain what’s not at all ordinary, symbolizing states of bounty ushered in by a tandem cosmos. As with all art, the relatable, when juxtaposed with the enigmatic conjures up different things for different people. This earthbound-cum-astrological isn’t too faint or heavy-handed.
Prius Wig’s paintings look visually indifferent to any specific time or subject; they exist outside of the 86,400-second news deluge of national policy blunders, economic desolation, and the rest of it. I mention these things because I think McLaughlin’s work is free — it certainly is in these specific ways, and this can’t be taken for granted.
McLaughlin’s work isn’t too obviously ‘after’ anyone in terms of specific lineage or even affinity either. Rather, each painting obeys its own in-the-moment logic of broken down, sometimes contradictory symbols and out of place icons, set against the illustrious Nowhereland of fat-over-lean, brushed or pushed oil on canvas — as in Demeter (2017). His painterly backdrops appear to transform over time, like a smoky mist that changes its form continually; they flirt at each glance and are worked up into aura, and they divest themselves of any possible likeness. And yet there’s no air of privacy or forced grandeur. I’m attracted to the kind of nonsense that doesn’t parade itself as important, meaningful statement. It occurs to me that maybe McLaughlin mocks such a parade, and maybe that’s part of the point.
Depictions of the figured world can send all kinds of messages. The motif of the cross or plus sign is one such aspect. Why, in contrast to everything else here that is nonpictoral, leave such a heavy handed emblem so well-intact? I wondered the same when looking at the aforesaid duck, the flowers in Demeter, and the autumnal scene in the second Demeter, and am left with the notion that symbols set into enigmatic space allow for satisfyingly democratic, various experiences. I’d contrast this to something like, say, the skull or quill in vanitas, that of course say DEATH. These, instead, are saying, hinting, muttering, LIFE.
Demeter (2017), I was told by the totally hospitable proprietor Amy Adams, came from a German advertisement. With McLaughlin’s betrayal of the significance of words, the viewer is granted new participation. I had no idea the design was based on an ad, and because of that, I wondered awhile at what all these figures might “say.” The beauty is, they can and will say nothing at all.
McLaughlin lives on the beach in Florida. This is information that, while interesting, even charming, doesn’t help one to better see the paintings in some fact-based way — which I’m glad for. In Florida (2017), there’s that easily discernible F-L, but the shady, cement-and-coal tones leave you with the strange and beautiful, gloomy impression you probably wouldn’t get from a place that’s so, postcard-worthy or whatever. This is more like a metaphysical, subjective impression of Florida — a place that’s, after all, not all sunny in every sense.
As a casual viewer — a fan of art, thinking about and taking it in at variable intervals — it’s valuable as the particular thing that’s right in front of you, and in that it has as abundant a power as anything. It’s in your life, as a friend of mine once told me, and a suitable vehicle to the kind of new experience that needs no goal or meaning.
It’s in the occasions like these that differ from the ones we’re rode roughshod over lately — often asking ourselves what kind of life is this? — that one is given the keen opportunity of seeing in new ways. McLaughlin’s paintings remind me of Bill Berkson’s statement that “surface is the great revealer.” In their spacious, fractured vernacular, these pictures can take you anywhere you’d like, if you’re open enough to the indulgence.