A face, neck and shoulder of a three quarter “portrait” , positioned between two calm and cold walls, addresses us over a mad riot of exploding red, yellow, and other hues. The blue above the head suggests an open space behind, open space abandonned and not accessible anymore? Like an unfulfilled expectation?
While its visual force arrests me easily, even bribing my attention by the exquisite abandonment to confident abstraction, I willingly struggle to decide what this painting wants. At the same time, I am not anxious to grasp all at once, knowing that McCann’s paintings change their minds a little on subsequent viewing, never abandoning their central empathy to our being here and now. Nevertheless, I accept that my relaxed attitude is not satisfactory for those viewers who insist on a clearly defined narrative, ie instrumental value.
W.J.T Mitchell suggests that answers to the central questions of visuality “must be sought in the specific, concrete images that most conspicuously embody the anxiety over image-making and image-smashing in our time.” (What Do Pictures Want?)
The words seem to connect to the place where McCann had a studio until the owner decided to sell the building to a developers. It is a part of the replacement of what is by what exists in sketch books and proposals only. Something is burning – either objects or memories – or even ethical and aesthetic judgments. The abstract rectangles lost the sharp corners and outlines in parts – as if their power to define had been weakened by erosion of sorts. Erosion of morality included. Paradoxically, a larger part of this painting prefers rococo sweet hues in high key – even dissolving in one another. The painter’s curiosity how much that “dissolution” can take is pushed to the extreme in this grey large rectangle.
The folds of the cloth on the left display attention to detail, seen also in medieval paintings (and Alfons Mucha)
I put this in terms of the following analogy (roughly paraphrased): “when it comes to images, then, we are in something like the position of savages who do not know where babies come from. We literally do not know where images come from, or where they go when (or even if) they die.” (W.J.T.Mitchell in an interview accessed on http://www.visual-studies.com/interviews/mitchell.html)
The sliver of the drapery on the left of the chair shares in indeterminacy with two more details that surround it. The marks above its top edge are to be marks made on the wall during some reported torture. They also work like evening clouds or small waves at the shore. There are small marks near the right top corner of the chair – they morph – if viewed on the original – into a squashed face with two eyes and a nose. The mouth is almost invisible, the eye on the left is swollen.
This title above pins the meaning to the obviously visible, a dark coloured figure holding a figure painted in white and other high key hues. Both surrounded by an evening tone of a pink. McCann’s pink mixed with grey. A case of empathy for someone’s state of mind? This could include the painter too. McCann here returns to his friendships shattered by the past Troubles, and possibly other losses.
While The Stone remembers old selfportrait, in a confident shifting of the theoretical issue of appropriation back to his own early paintings, the blocks of colours resonate back to Rothko and to McCann’s own small colour rectangles destine to minimise retinal recognition.
This is the clearest case of McCann’s specific brushstroke, watery and loaded, capable of smooth cover or a resolute division of the colour field. This schizophrenic definition suits perfectly as visualisation of memory with weakened but not a weak recall.
Landscapes keep appearing – and have been central to McCann’s largest paintings over the last period. This one is painted with dryer brush where it called for textures, witness to McCann’s keen definition of observed object. For me it evokes to last seconds before the sun disappears behind the evergreens.
On occasions, McCann switches to watercolour with this excellent technical and poetic mastery. Usually there is one central form, a figure or a tree, or just smudged face.
Indeed, on occasion, he includes a smile, a greetings to other painters. The tonality is reminiscent of Velasquez, the motif of a story. The whole is a vintage McCann, when he wins over the dark forces of recent history.
Images courtesy of Sharon Kelly and the painter.