February 4 – March 31, 2017
Richard Levy Gallery, Albuquerque
In this two-person show, with paintings by Matthew McConville and photographs by Jason DeMarte, both the genres of still-life painting and nature photography are given a conceptual once-over and then set loose on the art historical continuum. At first the viewer might think that the desire to create pastiche led both artists to some unintended consequences—meaning that each artist’s project might have begun as ironic investigations of previous art traditions—but the work actually takes on the burden of thoughtful postmodern critique. The artists traffic in carefully wrought representations that both carry the weight of history and yet also stick their finger into the eye of the present, throwing shade on the natural world and the root meaning of nature morte.
McConville’s exquisite renderings of flowers, leaves, brambles, and twigs leave the viewer rather awestruck in admiration of his impeccable technique. The artist is hyper-vigilant in his attention to details, but he doesn’t just aspire to photorealism. His paintings are steeped in melancholy and resist being buttonholed as pure imitation of a certain category of painting. If McConville is enamored of the Golden Age of still-life paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the beauty and luxuriousness of Rachel Ruysch’s flower paintings from that time become grist for McConville’s backward-looking mill, whose wheels eventually come around to the present and rest on a moody surrealism. Along with his images of invasive species, floating flower bulbs, wilting blossoms, and one startling jellyfish is an uneasy wistfulness at right angles to technique. If the artist can do nothing to ward off the invasions—let’s face it, humans are the biggest invaders of all into the natural world—then at least the artist can revel in philosophical speculation as each tiny brushstroke painstakingly brings to life a vision of delicate beauty and odd juxtapositions.
One of McConville’s most haunting paintings is the work Invasive. A carefully arranged heap of twisted brambles comprises thin attenuated lines in a kind of figure-eight pattern with a few judiciously placed leaves and flower petals. But where exactly in pictorial space is this still life located? The brambles sit majestically but precariously on what appears to be a slender marble shelf that crosses the entire width of the painting. Surrounding the shelf and the plant forms is a pale gray void with no referents to what anchors this still life in the everyday world of gravity. The image is intriguing but in a chilling, non-committal way.
DeMarte’s manipulated photographs of birds in fake tableaux push the uneasiness one perceives in McConville’s work into even more overt surrealistic terrain, where nature is defiled, presumably by social mishap and deadly excess. Aqua paint drips on a mourning dove and the branch of white blossoms on which it sits, as in the work Blue Mourning. Industrial accident meets indifferent attitudes, particularly in our current political climate. In Cardinal Sin, the plot thickens with caramel oozing over the innocently bystanding birds who are about to be engulfed in a candied-apple confection of nasty proportions.
The two bodies of work in this exhibition are quite complementary and visually powerful. But if it’s true that I’m more drawn to McConville’s reinvention of a genre, as in his painting Tulips and Bulbs (after Rachel Ruysch), it’s because I, too, am moved by the long and illustrious career of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), who did her art in an era when professional women artists were few and far between. Ruysch, however, painted more than just flowers; most of her compositions were punctuated with images of moths, butterflies, lizards, seashells, and insects in a time when the discipline of natural history was in its nascent stage. McConville takes his inspiration from an era when curious artists and avid observers wanted to embrace everything they saw on land, sea, and sky. But what of the compromised times we live in—where everything is uncertain and risk is everywhere? Where species of various sorts are dropping off the face of the earth at an alarming rate? The role of the artist as witness and warning bell is more important than ever when natural beauty continues to fade within a matrix of the blighted and the bleak.