Mike McConnell lets his brush wander for his show 'Pentimento' at School 33

Pentimento, as Lillian Hellman describes it in her 1973 book of the same name, is a slow process; it only becomes apparent after years, after paint’s binder and pigment break down. “Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent,” she writes.“When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

Mike McConnell’s paintings, in his solo show “Pentimento” at School 33 through Aug. 22, don’t show their past secrets and the passage of time in this same exact sense, but they carry stories and memories in layers of scratched and scraped marks, patterns, and colors.

McConnell (disclosure: his work and mine were in group shows late last year at MAP and at Platform Gallery) was an illustrator for more than 30 years, which is still evident in his highly patterned, spatially flattened landscapes and interiors. The flat shapes and lines that recur in his paintings recall the great 1950s-era illustrator Mary Blair, who did concept art for Disney movies “Alice in Wonderland” and “Cinderella.” There’s a pervasive nostalgia in McConnell’s paintings, and the looping, wiggly brush strokes, as in ‘Between Tuscany,’ bring to mind board games such as Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, along with various unplaceable, unnameable references to childhood.

At times this nostalgia trip feels a bit too saccharine, and the stripes and polka-dot patterns maybe a little too scrapbook-y. But then there are moments, like in the small ‘Pine Dream,’ where the ground and its forms, paths, and patterns trip all over themselves, allowing the viewer to wander and stumble, too. ‘Pine Dream’ feels like a nighttime walk in the woods: The sky’s a deep, cool blue. Out of a tangle of green and blue loops that, maybe, we are standing in, a blue waterfall appears. Crossing our field of vision from the right (wherever we are) is an almost-bare orange-limbed tree, whose few leaves show the earlier layers of the painting, the negative space. The blue paint of the sky cuts around the tree and the leaves, revealing the warmer layers beneath.

Most of the paintings in “Pentimento” are colorful and busy landscapes, often featuring mountains and bodies of water. Others function more like interior spaces, and a couple of them—‘Spawn’ and ‘Laundromat’—almost look placeless.

‘David’s Tie’ is a jarring hybrid of inside and outside. It feels like a spacious modern house that has floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights above. The ground is a patchwork of stripes and grids and various other patterns. Chairs and amoebalike shapes pop out here and there, while a dog sleeps next to a mantle. The whole scene is cool and serene except for the bright red walls that enclose it, collapsing boundaries and making us feel both interior and exterior at once.

Despite being trained as an illustrator, McConnell’s paintings are rarely narrative; the stories he tells appear only in these little moments. In ‘Through Chandler with Jaehyo’ a tiny bicycle appears on a mountainside path, resting against a huge tree (with a hole cut out in the base of its trunk, you know, for the road to go through) while bigger vignettes of autumn-colored cut logs and variegated greenery interrupt the scene. Many of the paintings feel like they’re from the same time of day—similar blues, browns, and greens run throughout them—making it seem like a collection of memories from a long wandering adventure.

This wandering is important. Wandering, whether in the physical world or memory and thought, lets us find new paths. And here, McConnell doesn’t fill in all the details for us. Instead he flattens time and space with meandering shapes and marks, mining the surface and its previous layers. Maybe the paintings spring from real moments in time, and as he works, parts of the scene evolve or devolve from that point. Where some areas are unclear or unmemorable, he goes in with more ambiguous shapes, filling in the memory gaps. 

“Pentimento,” at School 33 through Aug. 22

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