“Often, when we pose our gaze to an art image, we have a forthright sensation of paradox. What reaches us immediately and straightaway is marked with trouble, like a self-evidence that is somehow obscure.” Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images, 2005.
What is extraordinary about Kim McLean’s work is that it is not at all what it at first appears to be. In this age of downloads it is easy to assume that representational digital art is merely an assemblage of found images; that there is nothing crafted about it other than deft moving of a mouse. McLean’s images, indeed, are not handmade in the traditional sense and yet they are as handmade as if they were made with charcoal on a sketchpad while, at the same time, being utterly digital — this work exists between those two opposites and is both handmade and machine-made.
An Air Force brat whose father commanded a nuclear weapons division during the Cold War, McLean spent his formative years in Europe. Although he returned to the US in his senior year to attend Tulane University in New Orleans and study Anthropology, those early itinerant years had created a restless spirit. After a period of experimentation with life, including playing sax in a band, he returned to academia at the University of Wisconsin earning an MFA which led to a position of professor of sculpture and ceramics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He soon moved to New York City where he took up painting and started a cabinet-making company until marriage and children found him swapping art-making for the all-consuming life of the proprietor and head chef of Stewart House, a restaurant and bed and breakfast on the Hudson River. When he sold that business and returned to art-making after a hiatus of nearly twenty years, it was not sculpture or painting that lured him but computers and digital art.
McLean uses the technology of architectural software to make 3D models, some of which are invented and others based on actual places or things, but they are constructed by drawing on the computer in much the same way a traditional artist would make studies on paper from a found image. One huge difference is that McLean is not working in two dimensions while creating an illusion of the third dimension. He is actually drawing in three dimensions and the drawings bear a striking resemblance to the works of the 15th century master of perspective, Paolo Uccello. Once a drawing is completed, he can turn it 360 degrees around any axis and view it from any angle. It is a fascinating and extraordinarily complex process that gives the artist an unprecedented degree of autonomy and control over his compositions.
It would be a mistake, however, to look at these works simply as feats of technical virtuosity. With some exceptions, McLean tends not to begin with a preconceived idea of where he wants to end up but is interested in story-telling and what transpires when disparate elements are put together in composition. For instance, if one takes the image of a Trojan Horse and combines it with images of angels, as is the case in Rocket Blaster, this is going to create a very different narrative than one produced by, say, the iconic horse with images of soldiers as per the original story of the deception visited on the people of Troy. The title of Rocket Blaster is taken from another element in the composition, that of an ICBM blasting off amid turbulent clouds of orange smoke. This image, along with the radio tower that echoes its shape and emits (warning?) radio waves, grounds the narrative in the present; the dichotomy between these elements and the angel imagery creates an unsettling whole – what are these angels that have been smuggled into this modern Troy? Are they saviors or angels of death? This disruption to the iconography is further complicated by the fact that the angels are fleeing from the explosive scene like… bats out of hell, perhaps.
This sense of a dystopia is evident in many of McLean’s works – in the sulphur-yellow landscape of A Bridge Running Roughly Parallel to the Horizon and also in Fokker Night Blue. In the latter, McLean has created a city that seems to float in space and underneath it, in an iridescent pool, floats the iconic Fokker F-VII. On closer inspection we see that the city is constructed of structures reminiscent of Roman aqueducts, houses of cards whose precariousness is echoed by a totem pole-like group of figures, and a steel grid radio tower based on Vladimir Shukhov’s hyperboloid Tower near Moscow. The strong verticals created by the totem and the radio tower are broken by the diagonal of a ship-in-a-bottle that echoes the position of the airplane (and might follow it if it wasn’t trapped in the bottle). The ship is not the usual sailing vessel but the battleship North Carolina – its position above the airplane creates a strange sense of vertigo, of a world turned on its head. The houses of cards are constructed solely of Queens of Diamonds – this detail was inspired by the use of the Queen of Diamonds card as a trigger, or transmitter, for the brainwashing of Lee Harvey’s character in the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate.”
One of the fascinating aspects of McLean’s works is his use of texture, pattern, and light. He uses scans of hand-drawn pencil and crayon marks as “skins” for rendering skies and other background areas. He also makes effective use of pages from his local Green County telephone book for its intrinsic pattern and its content of endless lists of names and addresses – a witty and interesting choice fusing, as it does, the micro of this small rural population with the macro of McLean’s subjects. An exciting aspect of the technology McLean uses is that it allows the artist to light the images the way a lighting designer might light a stage set and thus create highly dramatic effects. McLean’s work does not hand you solutions on a plate – these are visual puzzles as well as being aesthetic feasts for the eyes.
Kim McLean is represented by the Carrie Haddad Gallery, Hudson, NY.
His work is on exhibit at the Foreman Gallery at Hartwick College, Oneonta from February 21 — March 28 with opening reception on Thursday, February 28, 4:30 — 6:00.
Gallery times are Tuesday — Friday, noon — 8:00 pm and Saturday, noon — 4:00 pm. The gallery may also be opened by appointment. Gallery is closed during school breaks and holidays.
Banner Image: Rocket Blaster
All works are printed on Hahnemühle Paper with archival inks and are courtesy of the artist and the Carrie Haddad Gallery.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. In June 2013 she will direct her first production for the company: Rex & Rex by Carey Harrison. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe Art Journal