When we’re inside, we’re outside
When it’s night, it’s day. And wherever Siobhan McBride takes us—underwater, into a blizzard, inside an aquarium, high above the earth—she gives us gorgeous light. The exhibition of her work at Eight Modern presents twenty-two of McBride’s blended scenes from 2010 to 2012, all created in gouache on paper on panel. The pictures range in size from five by four inches to eighteen by twenty-four inches and there is much drama within these spaces. Each work combines mini-views, or even snippets of views, aligned or superimposed or merely there. The composite images often have the feel of collage, but aren’t. McBride explains that her paintings “combine disparate yet familiar fragments into spaces that are still, anxious, and temperamental.” In Tapes we see four different styles of cassette tapes painted edge to edge on top of the picture’s tree section. Below them is a pond and beyond the trees are a canyon section and a sky section. I decide that each of the four cassettes contains different music to complement each of the painting’s four divisions. Yes, they are all part of the same painting, and yet they aren’t. They strike me as thoughts that are fighting with one other for expression. (I later read an interview of McBride where she describes how distraction often guides her work.)
We never see people in these works, just plenty of evidence of our ability to mar landscapes. There are fish trapped in a manmade aquarium. There are freeway overpasses ruining views. And there are appliances and devices galore, from an electric range to a microwave oven, to a phonograph record player. In Fah! a giant vinyl record album floats above the horizon like the setting sun, while the record player operates in the foreground. Its angled sides delimit the other scenes in the painting like patchwork—to the left a glimpse of the ocean borders a grassy field, to the right a sandy beach abuts a wood paneled floor. Here again McBride is deliberate about light. It comes from our left—as it often does in her work—and the shadow under the record player’s arm makes that clear.
McBride’s outdoor scenelets—sometimes slipped unobtrusively into the very bottom of a painting, or glimpsed just outside a window, or emerging from the top of a teepee—offer vibrant combinations of teals, greens, and earth tones. Her dark colors are so rich that her use of light offers bright, eerie contrasts. In Side Car we see animal pelts and a taxidermy mount on what appears at first to be some sort of luminescent green monitor. But on closer inspection we find that we are inside a dark railroad passenger car looking out through the window at dead, preserved critters awash in blue-green light, like riding a vintage train through a dusty, forgotten natural history museum.
McBride titles her work in ways that sometimes reflect what we are seeing and sometimes create unanswered questions. We identify the meandering road in Path, the kidcolored beach ball in Ball, and the grass and trees in Yard. But the rabbit in Rabbit Tattoo is elusive, unless he’s in the red-hot oven. And the hint of Canadian First Nations art in Alligators All the Time doesn’t help me with the alligator reference. Equidistance leaves us trying to calculate which items are somehow equally spaced, and yet distant from what? The tree to the house? The house to the tower? The tower to the road, and then to the snowy ground we’re standing on? “I hope the work is strange and suspenseful,” says McBride, “like the excitement of exploring a new place, and the thrill of knowing you are drifting back into a frightening dream.”
In college McBride double-majored in art and English. Once I know this, I begin to suspect that these paintings are McBride’s way of telling stories by using composites of scenes to create an acute sense of place and of mood. She is describing moments and leaves it to us to decide whether each moment precedes an important event or follows it. McBride works on several paintings at once to avoid boredom and to try not to overthink them, and to give free rein to distraction.
Loon Habitat captures me entirely. There is no loon in sight but I realize that we are in his underwater world. We look up at the blinding white light of the water’s surface above us. Down below, with our loon’s-eye view, McBride has created the muted tones of the ocean floor and yet light still reflects from the gently waving fronds of the water plants to our left and the shells, barnacles, and stones to our right. For the first time in my life, I am a loon.
The humor in the hanging of the show is heartening. The tiniest painting (Rabbit Tattoo, five by four inches) shows a stove with all four burners blazing and a fiery oven, and hangs over the gallery fireplace. Loon Habitat’s wet world is the first painting we see upon entering the gallery from the miserably dry outdoors. Roadways share wall space as do cozy interiors. McBride borrowed the show’s title directly from those grammatically odd road signs warning that STRONG WINDS MAY EXIST. Like winds that apparently exist rather than occur, McBride’s suggestions of connectivity in her paintings may or may not exist.