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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Oil and Acrylic Architecture

Currently on view at Jen Bekman Gallery in SoHo is Sarah McKenzie | Void, featuring "eight oil and acrylic paintings by Sarah McKenzie," her second solo exhibition at the gallery.

[Void (WTC), 2011, oil and acrylic on canvas, 20" x 30"]

At first glance I'm reminded of the animation in Richard Linklater's Waking Life, which I briefly featured four years ago. In that movie artists painted over Linklater's live-action film, creating some odd disconnects between the animation and filmed reality, but in most cases making an abstraction or simplification of reality. Minute details are flattened to their essences, keeping the colors, planes, and edges intact. In that film reality -- or reality as it appears on the medium of digital video -- is perceptible below the painted surface; such is the sensation I get when looking at McKenzie's paintings, be they the ones on display at Bekman now (above) or older canvases (below).

[Patriot, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 72"]

Of course I'm looking at these paintings because their subject matter is architectural, construction sites from Ground Zero to suburbia. If not related to buildings, they probably would not have been brought to my attention. Regardless, their appeal isn't just the fact that they are architectural, it's the way they trace reality to make something that most probably see as mundane and forgettable (it will get covered up anyways) into things of beauty. Like Linklater, McKenzie uses another medium as her surface reality, photographs that let her paint things she can't otherwise access from vantage points that few people can witness.

[Site, 2007, oil on canvas, 48" x 72"]

I'm also intrigued by the lack of people or activity in her paintings. Think construction site and what comes to mind is the noise, the motion, and even the smells of machines, workers, and processes. But these are nowhere to be found, just implied in the fact that the construction has reached its frozen state in the image. The lack of people and other signs of work also gives the impression that we are looking at views from somebody trespassing on off hours or days, or in earlier paintings (below) views from a helicopter yielding a voyeuristic view from above. In this case my comparison with Linklater's film seems even more appropriate, as the images I chose to show were of a construction site sans people.

[Frame, 2005, oil on canvas, 48" x 72"]

McKenzie states that her recent paintings (top) "are all about absence and longing ... [and] thresholds ... liminal zones, where one might pass from one space or state of being to another." The previous Construction Paintings (middle three images) "explore the building process and, in it, find a metaphor for the activity of painting," equating the raw materials of one for raw materials of another. Before 2005 she "painted aerial views of suburban sprawl" (bottom), the after of some of the construction documented in her later paintings.

[Aerial #53, 2002, oil on canvas, 48" x 72"]

Yet beyond the artist's intentions I think her paintings do a couple things: they comment on the country's stagnation, something that can be gauged by building projects on hold, frozen in the midst of construction; and by revealing what is normally concealed they elevate the importance of building, the act of putting a piece of architecture together. The goal may be (or was, hoping we move towards more sustainable urbanism) the bottom image, but it does not happen without the wood studs, pipes, plywood, wires, and other materials assembled by workers. Making construction into something aesthetically appealing brings it closer to the appreciation of the building as designed by an architect, closer to what the design covers up.

Note: Sarah McKenzie will be giving a gallery talk on Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 11am at Jen Bekman Gallery, 6 Spring Street.


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