“How Comfortable it will be to touch the Earth”: Claire McConaughy at the Painting Center
Claire McConaughy: Not So far Away at The Painting Center
October 29 to November 23, 2019
547 West 27th Street, 5th Floor, between 10th and 11th streets
New York City, thepaintingcenter.org
Wonderment at the world is art’s perennial subject. Artists are always waking us up, not just to material phenomena themselves but to our own awareness of them. Representational art acts as a kind of lens, refracting the observable and allowing us to see it with a measure of the artist’s own vision.
In Claire McConaughy’s exhibition of 15 paintings we find a freshness of spirit conveyed through closely cropped landscapes. Our attention is concentrated typically on a small area of land and water, often fronted by a solitary tree or just a branch. The effect is at first seems picturesque, with nature seemingly making a picture out of itself, just for our delectation. By editing from view anything that might compromise the sanctity of the scene, clarity and beauty prevail.
However, the more we look, the more it becomes apparent that within the pristine landscape a fraught sense of strangeness begins to emerge. There is the sense the paintings’ idealism, a faith in nature untouched by human depredation, is also a way of grasping tightly to the hope that it will persist.
Suede Blue Lake (2019) is a prime example of McConaughy’s approach, with the water described as a swirling yin/yang of blue and pale gray, reflecting the clouds in an azure sky. Auburn hills define the distant shore, while close to us are a scrubby pine and the branch of a deciduous tree, locking into place the painting’s spatial dynamics. Bravura paint handling paradoxically yields a chilled, slightly melancholy scene.
Especially satisfying in this painting, as in other works, are the remarkable deftness of McConaughy’s touch and the economy with which she creates the illusion of our being there, right along with the painter. Her identification with the natural world is manifest, and in this I am reminded of the way poet Mary Oliver was able to know herself through closely hewing to the world. As she writes in “Song for Autumn”, “Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now/how comfortable it will be to touch/the earth instead of the/nothingness of the air and the endless/freshets of wind?”
Cerulean Lake (2019) is a painting that again features loosely painted water in blue and white, with a thin line of the horizon, and a series of drooping bows of a pine tree in sharp focus. Like the branches, the viewer is suspended in space, levitated off the ground. The image has a sense of picture postcard gratification. McConaughy’s paintings have an open forthrightness, once thought of as typically American, and as well, a feeling of a time well before our own anxious, cynical moment.
In their painterly directness, the bold image-making, and the sense of abstraction, I connect these paintings with the work of venerable painters of the New York School like Alex Katz and Lois Dodd. In Appearance (2019) and Sweet Green View (2019), two paintings of tree trunks and the space beyond, the light touch and transparency of the image also recalls the work of Raoul Dufy. The depiction of natural forms with simplicity and attention echoes Chinese brush paintings of nature close up.
A number of McConaughy’s paintings push us, along with the artist, out of nature’s Eden, and embrace a particular sense of risk and wildness. In the small painting Redon and the Sun (2019), McConaughy’s appreciation of the French painter’s intoxicated colorism is invoked in an agitated scene with gesturally articulated trees set against an expanse of blue with just a suggestion of an illuminated shoreline.
In a similar vein, Dream Sunset (2019) features plunging branches silhouetted against a psychedelic sky of orange and magenta. Beach Pine (2019) has branches catching both the evening light, and an armada of pink clouds. Both paintings revel in nature’s poignant, gorgeous excess. In Interlaced Sunset (2019), a golden shaft of light penetrates a dark enveloping pine, beneath which is a cursorily limned building. The effect is strange and unnatural, charged with an ardent urgency. In these ambitious paintings, we have left behind the security of the familiar, and entered a new zone of awareness, where we see ordinary life as dreamlike and exalted.