High Folly: Jonathan McCree

4 February - 20 March 2021

The Art of Possibility

"You can proceed according to a set program or you pick individual possibilities according to your personal taste. After all, there's enough of them. Don't worry if you're never 'done,' because the re-combination could proceed in perpetuity without ever becoming boring."

 

 Charlotte Posenenske 

 

Without possibility there is no potential. Over the past year, our windows of possibility have been ever-narrowing. And like so many of us, Jonathan McCree has turned his gaze inwards by default; his practice - normally driven by collaboration - has taken a more introspective turn during lockdown. But there's nothing in High Folly to suggest the melancholic spirit of a reclusive artist. Instead, we're greeted with much-needed riot of colour in McCree's electrifying new sculptures, their decorative embellishes providing surprising sight-lines through the space. We, the audience, gratefully become active collaborators.

 

Closer inspection reveals these monolithic structures are more fragile than meets the eye: McCree is an artist who revels in fragility. It's echoed in his choice of humble materials - his columns are cut from cardboard and painstakingly hand-painted with (thin) layers upon layers of pigment. In that fragility he also posits a physical and conceptual robustness; there's a provisional quality to the works that contradicts their seemingly rigid shape. Like performers on a stage, they operate individually but together become more than the sum of their parts.

 

McCree cites the work of German artist Charlotte Posenenske, whose sculptures explore systems and structures derived from mass production and standardisation. (She pivoted away from the art world in 1968, turning her attention to sociology until her death from cancer in 1985 at age 54.) Unlike many of her minimalist peers, Posenenske shied away from the academic exercise of conceptualising her practice: instructions published at an exhibition of her reconfigurable sculptures in 1967 prompted the audience to 'Have fun!' And it is that same sense of playfulness that McCree's colourful cardboard creations embody, lightweight enough to be rearranged at whim.

 

These Technicolor totems hark back to McCree's childhood, an experience he rarely connects to his practice and even more rarely speaks of. His parents, members of a strict fundamental religious community, would take him to church every week: the sermon hall was a long, narrow rectangle - not unlike the white cube of an art gallery. Instead of religious rapture, McCree was instead held captive by hard pews and his own boredom. The sculptures connect 'to a memory that doesn't exist', an imagined recollection of that staid space - this childhood fantasy embedded within a tense paradox. In High Folly, McCree also returns to the altar through a more recent memory, expanding on works created during a 2013 residency in a 15th-century Italian Renaissance chapel.

 

But McCree is a master of more than one language, evidenced in the sumptuous strokes he takes to canvas. His paintings aren't merely hollow echoes of his sculpture work. To McCree, painting is as much a visual experience as it is a physical one. He's especially intrigued by its kinetic qualities: as we, the viewers, breath, move, and twitch so too do his paintings. In the presence of the work, our physical gestures - some deliberate, some inadvertent - form a spontaneous and constantly evolving dialogue with the canvas.

 

I recall the seminal 1952 essay The American Action Painters, in which the writer and critic Harold Rosenberg championed the notion of the canvas as "an arena to act". He opined: "A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a 'moment' in the adulterated mixture of his life - whether 'moment' means, in one case, the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or, in another the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in a sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life."

 

Memory is a fickle friend, and we've been afforded few opportunities to form new ones as of late. But revery comes in the most unexpected forms. While we sit confined in our own proverbial white cubes for the foreseeable future - bored, waiting, idling - McCree's joyful follies open our world to new possibilities, endless in scope, and a vital reminder of the value of daydream.

 

 Jessica Klingelfuss, January 2021