Tuesday, February 1st, 2005

Tom McGrath

Zach Feuer Gallery (LFL)
530 West 24 Street
New York NY 10011
212 989 7700

December 6, 2004 to January 22, 2005

Tom McGrath Untitled (car crash) 2004 oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches Courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery
Tom McGrath, Untitled (car crash) 2004 oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches Courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery

Tom McGrath’s second solo exhibition at Zach Feuer Gallery continues to explore themes of the road and car culture that he initiated in 2002. While a broad tradition of landscape painting informs the work, their true foundation rests upon a fair amount of heady contemporary urban theory, ranging from pop to the apocalyptic. In practice, this means that Mr. McGrath has set himself the task of translating a lot of ideas into his painterly process – no small undertaking. The artist focuses not so much on landscape per se as the observer’s movement through it. He starts with his own experience on the road as his primary visual model: a driver in flight on American highways in our era of satellite broadband. McGrath paints for an audience accustomed to seeing references to pop culture and appropriated imagery in serious art – not the case when Warhol silkscreened newspaper photos of car crashes onto canvas – which is to say that irony is not the point here. The sensibility is wry, but high-minded.

There are just five paintings dating from 2003-2004 hanging in the show. Canvases are fairly large, in horizontal formats at widths of 96 inches, featuring imagery of cars, parking lots, and roadside suburbia. However, the pictorial logic of McGrath’s loosely photo-based realist style is continually interrupted by something that makes the scene waver. Is it a time warp? Heavy weather from the 4th dimension rolls down the mountainside and plops on a Dunkin’ Donuts shack…. Other than this striking feature of spatial disruption, which is different in each painting, McGrath keeps it simple. The paintings have titles such as “Untitled” (Dunkin’ Donuts), “Untitled” (car crash), “Intersection”. Color tends towards warm neutral tones of ochres, grays, and browns with accents such as rich red cadmium and deep viridian green.

In fact, McGrath is far less interested in color relationships than the modulation of space and time through painted form. The viscosity of oil paint is the perfect vehicle, as it were, for McGrath’s ends, and his painterly touch feels full, even fat. Surface textures range from melted plastic to chalk and velvet. The façade of the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise mentioned above wobbles like a pink, orange, and brown mirage, as though rain or the liquefy tool in Photoshop had been dragged across both architecture and atmosphere. The artist is obliged to support the canvas with a solid board while working to achieve different effects by controlled chance, wherein he stains, sprays, mottles, or allows rivulets of medium to dissolve their way through thick, bog-like islands of paint. Altogether a sense of nonchalance and deliberation is at odds with the idea of rushing highway transit. The speed of light gets stuck in the muck of the picture plane, as it were, where history, perspective, and algorithm pile up in instantaneous but inconsistent flows. (The term algorithm, incidentally, is named after a 1st century Arab mathematician.)

Truth be known, the artist makes photo collage studies for the paintings using photographs he took himself. They’re destroyed during the painting process, which seems a pity. But the very difficulty of visualizing what different types of intersecting space might look like is the point of making them – to have a point of departure for the paintings. These days, the genre most inclined to explore discontinuous time zones is moving image media, not painting. McGrath’s interest in spatial discontinuity brings him close, at least conceptually, to the work of artists such as Paul Pfeiffer, Douglas Gordon, or Theresa Hubbard, all of whom reconstruct the space-time continuum somewhere between feature film and applet. However that may be, the ambitious overlap of urban theory, his own experience, and the painting process is reason enough to see McGrath’s latest exhibition.