Razzle-dazzle and bedazzled

McPherson's 'Hot Salad' and Wester's 'DISCOurse #1: Pinup'
By GREG COOK  |  April 30, 2014

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MELTING AND OOZING McPherson's 'Strategic Gland.'

One of the things that still gets me about how we tell the history of art of the past century or so in America is how New York-centric it remains. It’s a result of the continuing dominance of New York museums and publishing on the discourse. And, of course, the fact that New York is still America’s premiere art marketplace.

It’s really as an art emporium that New York still leads. Because even at the high art end of the art industrial complex, the balance of power in American art making has shifted to California.

Which has even been evident in New York museums of late, with major shows of California artists Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, James Turrell, and Robert Irwin, plus surveys of African-American art from LA in the 1960s and ’70s (“Now Dig This”) and the folksy, street-style paintings of San Francisco’s “Mission School” (“Energy That Is All Around” at New York University through July).

But there’s a lot of other wondrous art in America that remains overlooked — at times actively ignored and suppressed — because it is too brilliantly weird, too sexy and messy, too fun and funny, too lowbrow in its tastes, too politically charged, too female, too queer, too psychedelic and rainbow bright and funky in its look. Much Providence art of the past generation has fallen into this gully. So praise to the RISD Museum for plans to rectify this a bit with a show of “Alternative Figures in American Art” this fall.

But back to now. All this history came to mind when I saw Heather Leigh McPherson’s exhibit “Hot Salad” at the 186 Carpenter gallery (186 Carpenter St, Providence, through July 21). The Providence artist plans to rotate through various works during the long run of the show, but the ink, acrylic, and spray paintings I saw featured faces that melt and ooze and glow like neon.

The canvases feel very now in their DayGlo, webby, rancid colors; at the same time, they’re retro groovy like Daft Punk’s earworm “Get Lucky.” Or more specifically, like the caricatures and auras in paintings by 1960s and ’70s Chicago “Imagist” artists Miyoko Ito and Christina Ramberg (whom McPherson spoke of when I met her at the gallery) and Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt (whom I  mentioned).

Strategic Gland is built around a flat orange shape carelessly cut into the outline of a head. The nose is part lilac-to-yellow fade and part gunky daubs of paint that fill the nostrils. The mouth is a zigzagging ring painted with highlights and shadows so that it fakes your eyes into thinking it’s 3D.

Amidst the razzle-dazzle, it’s easy to miss that there’s actual fancy painting going on — sharp-edged masking, bleeding poured ink. In other works, she paints designs onto palettes, peels them up, and applies them to her canvases, sometimes backwards. Then she might paint these decals with tromp l’oeil effects that camouflage their true flatness. Because like the Chicago gang, McPherson has a thing for dazzling craft and for optical illusions that tease your eyes and mind.

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