What it Is – the title of Medrie MacPhee’s recent show at Von Lintel – was fitting for an artist with a career-long preoccupation with the slippery identities of painted forms. Over the past years MacPhee has exhibited abstract paintings that are nonetheless evocative of some specific, if indeterminate, time and place. Forms feel rendered rather than invented in her work, and distinct spaces are suggested by horizon-like lines.
The dense, challenging paintings that comprise the new show mark a dramatic departure. In these mostly larger-scale canvasses the separate shapes, or “futuristic species”, as the artist has playfully described them, of earlier pictures have been brought together en masse to collide, overlap and interact in scenes of barely controlled abundance. The approach builds forcefully from the abstract/figurative tensions established in the previous works, and the multiple forms are more engaging than the solitary ones to an almost proportionate degree.
The works in this show differ in character, effect and intention, while united in their elusiveness. In Big Bang (2010) jagged shapes press uncomfortably past the picture plane, right-angled items stack and teeter to a compositional point of near-breakdown. Float (2009) similarly depicts a collection of forms either emerging or being submerged amidst piles of wreckage. Further comparison to anything architectural falls short, however: the configurations of parts depicted in these paintings are in no way earthbound or materially stable. Not only has gravity given way to a point where questions of support and suspension are non-applicable, but the very planes of the matter depicted often give way to contrasting underpainting of atmospheric blues and grays, to disorienting effect. Strong dramatic light unexpectedly strikes some forms and softly passes through others.
But rather than allowing us to get lost in the rich ambiguities these elaborate set ups offer, MacPhee seems insistent questioning just what is being looked at in these pictures? The response is rich in adjectives and short on nouns. The seemingly discrete parts that make up these works have clear and specific characteristics–hard, transparent, soft, columnar, etc. – and yet remain unidentifiable as any known object outside their painted world. As viewers we have the distinct sense of looking at real, raw materials in a pre-named state. Surveying these paintings recalls the tasks of early philosophy, laboriously weighing questions of attribute against those of essence. MacPhee’s unusual, even jarring, palette becomes significant in this context – purples, acidic greens and reds are laid on, label-like, to objects that still stubbornly resist definition. The world presented by the artist is one keenly, even threateningly, felt – if not necessarily comprehended.
It was instructive to learn from the artist that this recent series was sparked in part by time spent in Berlin, where the marks of a complex history are materially palpable. Without being too literal about it, the influence of the city supports the impression that the laboratory-like experimentation of the earlier works has given way to a powerful response to human-scaled questions of construction, anxiety, momentum and collapse. Also cited was a growing concern with the “hard-core unreality” of the current news media, in which the facts surrounding oil spills and economic recoveries are altered wildly on a daily basis, and where the exact point of crisis is always uncertain. In MacPhee’s new paintings there is a distinct sensation of being up against a reality that we cannot name. These remarkable works stand out as a brave response to locating subject matter in a world where the simplest “is” can be difficult to graspprint