Imagine seeing moments from different realities in a single picture. Or think of snippets of memories pieced together to create peculiar juxtapositions of mundane objects situated in seemingly normal surroundings. Dream imagery? This is what comes to mind looking at Siobhan McBride’s gouache paintings in Strong Winds May Exist, her inaugural solo exhibit at Eight Modern, which showcases her work from 2010 to 2012.
In 22 diminutive works on paper mounted on wood panels—the majority of which are no larger than 12 x 16 inches—McBride’s work imports numerous narratives. Some scenes feel familiar while others are a bit skewed or just too personal to comprehend. None has any distinguishable beginning or end. The collagelike imagery—painted for the most part in flat, somber colors—tells of something to come or of something that just occurred, challenging viewers to fill in the before and after, not unlike the joined yet disconnected imagery seen in many David Salle paintings. But McBride’s paintings lack the slickness of Salle’s work, and she does not populate her pieces with the human figure. Nor do her paintings exude the sexual overtones associated with Salle’s work. I see in McBride’s style some connection to David Hockney’s technique in the 1960s—precise brushstrokes with dashes of expressive markmaking—but, again, minus the human figure.
McBride’s imagery confronts viewers by way of unoccupied rooms and unpopulated landscapes, yet both bear the presence of human activity. Depending on how much effort viewers care to put into her pictures, they may choose to ignore the underlying psychological implications or take to armchair analysis—which might reveal more about them than the artist. That’s what makes McBride’s work intriguing and fun.
In Cave—one of the smaller pieces at 8 x 10 inches—viewers are presented with an interior consisting of two rooms. The room to the right is lined with wallpaper in a yellow floral motif, while the other is barren, with blank white walls. In the former there is an armchair with cushioned seat and back and a decorative runner on the floor. In the adjoining room is a freestanding, makeshift cave—think partially constructed igloo—conceived of wooden armature and papier-mâché and what appears to be a rock inside. A simple wooden stool silhouetted in tan serves as a visual transition from one room to the other. The question is: In what seat or space would we be most comfortable, most protected? Seated in one room, we may be obligated to be sociable or become complacent; sitting on the stool we may be too exposed and vulnerable; positioned in the cave—or the womb?—we’re safe and unencumbered by the outside world.
Little House on the Prairie Marathon is another interior setting, and it is most likely McBride’s studio. The room—unoccupied and seemingly being repainted in mauve and pink—consists of a chair and table with two work lamps. Propped up on the paint-stained tabletop is an unfinished painting of a house. On the back wall to the left of two winders is a larger painting—a mural in the making?—of a house in a wooded terrain. And in the lower right foreground is an indistinguishable object painted in dark tones of purple and black. Everything is in a state of becoming. The room is being painted, and the small painting on the table has yet to be completed, as is the mural on the wall. The mysterious abstract shape could be anything. Even the painting itself could be considered unfinished. The chair is only partially painted, revealing McBride’s initial pencil marks that delineate its back support. And the title? Are viewers to believe that artist’s guilty pleasure is watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie at the expense of working in the studio? Some of McBride’s other titles are simply confusing. Take for example, Alligators All the Time and Rabbit Tattoo—neither of which contains and alligator, a rabbit, or a tattoo.
The paintings to which I kept returning are what I interpret as suburban landscapes featuring freeway constructs: Overpass and Ball, both from 2010. The former puts the viewer beneath two converging concrete roadways. The main thoroughfare is to the left and is equipped with three streetlights; the right is what appears to be an on-ramp curving inward to merge the two. Below is a field of green grass abutted in the distance by a line of trees—all quite normal looking. But what catapults this image into the realm of odd is the off-kilter outbuilding perched in the foreground like the tip of an iceberg and cropped from the attic window upward, with the most improbable roofline trimmed in powder blue. Floating behind it are pieces of paper that lead the eye up to the on-ramp. Are we standing in a landfill bordering a quiet neighborhood beyond the tree line? And where does the highway lead?
In Ball, a fragment of highway cuts into the uppermost portion of the composition from the right and abruptly ends midway in a dead-end roundabout. The elevated roadway towers over a sand dune spotted with tufts of beach grass and treetops beyond. The visual kicker is not only the inaccessible highway above but the big striped ball in the lower right corner surrounded by—or engulfed in—a large, dark red void that takes up one-third of the picture. The size differential between the latter components and the abstract nature of the void compared with everything else keeps us off balance as to the when, where, and why of it all. And with nary a human in the mix—not even footprints in the sand—the silence of the scene is deafening.
There is nothing quite like McBride’s work in Santa Fe right now. I commend director Jaquelin Loyd and co-director Margo Thoma for spotlighting emerging talent such as McBride.