Kate MacKinnon contemplates environmental crisis in formally austere paintings and drawings


By Kate MacKinnon

Through Dec. 21 at Jordan Faye Contemporary

Artists and poets have mourned the destruction of nature since the Industrial Revolution, regurgitating the same bitterness over and over again. By now, audiences have grown tired of this kind of sentimentality. Baltimore artist Kate MacKinnon, however, channels this grief in a refreshing and engaging way in Post-Arcadia, her fourth solo exhibition at Jordan Faye Contemporary. Composed of several paintings and four drawings, the show conveys a concise message through the overlap of material and image.

MacKinnon uses oil paint, a medium with a rich history in mastered naturalism, to create its polar opposite: hard, sleek surfaces that allude to car enamel or other industrial finishes. In mostly gray paintings, brief moments of color link each piece together to represent only a sliver of untouched nature peeking through the present environment. These slivers are the remains of Arcadia, the pure wilderness painted by some of the earliest oil painters during the Renaissance.

MacKinnon's process is fairly transparent. She works horizontally, as evidenced by the intentionally unconcealed paint drips down the sides of each painting. The drips intensify the visual weight of the paint. Faintly metallic pigments float in large quantities of glossy medium. The artist pours the solution over the surface to create nebulous shapes, like the clouds in the series "No More Blue Skies." In addition to the stripes of color over each painting, MacKinnon also uses a masking technique to define the sharp edges of plant life in "The Dream; Thanks Henri" or trees in "If Only Trees Were Cell Phone Towers."

She pushes the boundaries of oil paint to create the enamel-like finishes, and in doing so, pushes her environmentalist message further. MacKinnon could have easily used actual enamel to create this surface, but the industrial material would undermine the nature of her work. Regarded as the most naturalistic painting medium, oil paint existed before the wholesale industrial destruction of nature. There is something poetic about creating these lamentations of nature with such a medium, as if nature, the paint, has been transformed into a hard, deviant material.

The only drawings in the show, collectively titled "To C.T. With Love," refer to famed American artist Cy Twombly, who passed away in July, 2011. Twombly was known for his large, scribbled paintings, often inspired by Greek mythology. The four square mixed-media drawings adopt his childlike imagery in the crude, thickly outlined cloud shapes, with MacKinnon's signature strip of cerulean over the otherwise black-and-white color scheme. The drawings communicate a bold liveliness that she seems to intentionally avoid in most of her paintings. The cloud shapes in "To C.T." echo the poured splotches in "No More Blue Skies," where milky clouds in a gray space are overlapped by the stripe of sky blue. The paint takes on a life of its own. Rippled textures in the surface illuminate the metallic pigments. The chemical variations caused by the intermingling of different pigments and mediums draw the viewer into closer observation. It's the kind of meditative experience that could potentially spark serious contemplation of Earth's changing atmosphere, which the colors in the paintings attempt to mimic, holding out the pristine blue as a sharp censure of the polluted grays. MacKinnon presents both past and present realities at once, a simple kind of time warp to absorb the viewer.

The show's largest piece, "The Dream; Thanks Henri," stands out amidst the otherwise quiet paintings. Sharp floral silhouettes create bold, decorative patterns. Energy pounds through them even where the flora lacks color entirely as MacKinnon deliberately appropriates the dense compositions of Henri Rousseau's Post-Impressionist tropical landscape paintings. She thanks Rousseau for his utopian vision of nature, in its fantastical splendor. Like Twombly, Rousseau painted in a relatively childlike manner, creating his own universe rich with pattern and color. His idealistic jungle scene "The Dream" depicts a nude woman reclining on a red sofa, settled within lush vegetation, with a variety of wildlife peeking through the leaves. Only the presence of the European couch spoils, or comments upon, the perfect colonialist fantasy. Either way, the underlying message of Rousseau's painting translates into MacKinnon's theme of longing for a physically untainted earth.

Due to the luminosity, texture, and visual weight of each painting, MacKinnon's work can only be fully absorbed in person. Photographs rob the paintings of their meditative capabilities. "Post-Arcadia," which shares the show's name, demonstrates this potential in a more visually minimalistic language. The object-like weight and the material quality bring the viewer in and out of the scene, at one moment focusing on the romanticism of the hazy landscape created by the gray washes and the strip of green, and then back to the paint itself. Nothing of life remains besides a brief memory. The simplicity of the image effectively communicates the sense of loss.

There is nothing particularly harrowing or shocking about these formally austere paintings. MacKinnon doesn't need over-the-top, PETA-esque attempts to scare the viewer into caring about the environment. The work asks us not to change but simply to contemplate the imagery and let it affect us as it may. And that's what pushes the work beyond artistic sentimentality or propaganda and into painting.

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