Jon McCafferty

at TBA Exhibition Space, through April 19


at Jean Albano Gallery, through April 26

By Fred Camper

Stripe paintings by artists as different as Daniel Buren, Barnett Newman, and Gene Davis have one similar effect: the vertical colored bands that continue from the upper to lower edge of a rectangular composition lead the viewer’s eye beyond its edges, undermining any notion of a complete image–the stripes seem fragments of some larger continuum. This effect can also be found in Jon McCafferty’s seven superb new paintings at TBA Exhibition Space, though his vertical bands are often too soft edged to be called stripes.

Purl 2 consists mostly of dark black and brown stripes and a few that are yellowish, with white areas in between. The white areas are stripes too, and at times they expand slightly in width, threatening to overwhelm what’s around them the way a bright light source would. The darker stripes are interrupted by white dots with thin white circles around them like halos. These optical effects give McCafferty’s white a physicality, even a power, it wouldn’t otherwise have. The jagged, fuzzy edges of the stripes make them less like discrete objects; the stripes do lead the eye beyond the top and bottom edges of the wood block they’re painted on, but they also lead the eye sideways, because it’s not clear where each begins and ends. The wood blocks are several inches thick, and the stripes continue around the top and bottom edges, with more horizontal stripes painted on the sides–which underscores the idea that the designs are part of some larger field.

That larger field might be a ski slope. Born in Vermont in 1961 to parents who ran a ski lodge, McCafferty began skiing at two and a half, and at eight he was enrolled in a special school that coupled academic classes with several hours a day of ski training. “My parents never forced me–I loved skiing,” McCafferty told me. A competitive racer, he chose to stop after a 1979 accident, but he still thinks about racing. “In slalom racing you often have to ski against the fall line, the line that an object will take as gravity carries it down a particular topography,” he says. “I think about that in terms of the way I set up the painting.” McCafferty drew regularly from elementary school on. “The thing I drew most consistently were ski racing courses. I would draw a fictitious ski slope with two organic parallel lines defining the slope down and sets of two short parallel lines back and forth”–the slalom gates–“and then I would race through the course with my pencil.”

Skiing isn’t the sole influence on McCafferty’s art–he also mentions music, Indian and Persian miniature paintings, and the “erotically charged quality of line” in the drawings of Egon Schiele, which made him want to become an artist when he saw them in his early teens. But his years on the slopes may give his work its active, expansive feeling. In skiing, he says, there’s a combination of control and release: “To throw yourself down a mountain requires a certain ability to let go combined with a very precise sort of skill.” His “process oriented” paintings–in which stripes are made by dragging string dipped in paint across the wood or by pouring paint out of a pitcher and letting gravity do the rest–also combine control and letting go. In these paintings an element of chance is involved: the haloed white dots come from drops of paint that fall off the strings, an affect that’s impossible to control exactly. “I find I’m happiest with the results when I remain as open as possible to accident,” he says.

McCafferty’s color schemes and patterns don’t vary radically from painting to painting, so there’s a certain humor to the title Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. Here the stripe colors include green, yellow, and red, often with fuzzy edges that make the stripes impossible to read as discrete objects. A blue stripe with a relatively distinct edge sits next to a wavy-edged red one; within the red band is a thin, wavy blue line. This further confounds the distinctions between adjacent stripes–they’re in front of and behind and beside each other all at once. They also seem made by an unseen or hidden hand that doesn’t wish to fully explain itself. If classic modernist painting focuses attention on its imagery and materiality, the expansiveness and messiness of these works suggest realms outside their rectangles.

The attack on the idea of the autonomous art object goes back at least to the 1960s, when Robert Morris’s influential “Notes on Sculpture” was published; now orthodox modernism has become so uncommon that boundary-violating works almost seem the norm. Still, at their best, such works can have a messiness that challenges the viewer.

By this measure the 15 pink artworks, each by a different woman, in “Pink” at Jean Albano Gallery are positively aggressive: from Marisa Hernandez’s strange fabric sculptures of a chicken and a leg of lamb to Lorraine Peltz’s bright red cherry painting, they are provocatively sensual. In the exhibition booklet curator Lisa Wainwright mentions the way pink is used to identify girl babies; she also calls it the “color of pleasure,” an allusion to the parts of women’s bodies that are pink and to the use of the word in porn to refer to a certain kind of vulva close-up. Referring to recent feminist responses to earlier theoretical discussions of issues such as the male gaze, she declares that her show offers “representations of female experience through the apparatus of pleasure” and ends with a wish for “a spring luscious and ripe, a pink spring.”

Boundaries are certainly violated, perhaps even assaulted, by Barbara DeGenevieve’s Pink, a rectangle of fake fur with a red-lipped, toothy mouth at its center that evokes the mythical vagina dentata, a locus of male fears. The mouth opens and closes in sync with an audio loop: “I’m going to show you something….It will make a man out of you….I don’t care how I enter….Any hole will do.” The words are spoken by DeGenevieve, her voice lowered an octave, but the text alternates between implying male and female speakers, perhaps suggesting the kind of blurring of identities that can occur in lovemaking. Instability is also on DeGenevieve’s mind: “I call my current work pornographic for a reason,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “When I do, it becomes an unstable signifier….The carnal body is excessive….It eludes signification….I want to locate a woman as the subject and sexual agent within the discourse of pornography in order to interrupt conventional perceptions of female objectivity.”

That statement could hold for most of the work in this show, whose blatant sensuality deobjectifies the art object the way DeGenevieve wants to deobjectify women. The intense red of Peltz’s cherries in her painting Ma Cherie and the bright pink background they float against certainly made me feel a bit unstable. White lacy cloth is painted around the edges to form a kind of frame, but some of the cherries float in front of it, and some are cut off by the picture’s edge–suggesting a world of cherries as vast as the landscape of McCafferty’s stripes. The complex decorative patterns in Amy Yoes’s Loud Speaker, which range from geometrical shapes to wavy designs, turn shapes that are traditionally ornamental into an inviting environment.

Two installations explicitly try to create environments. Sally Alatalo’s Pink Romance uses a photo of a shelf of romance novels she owns; she added a pink hue and printed it in repeated rows, producing a wallpaper design that’s installed on a freestanding wall with molding at the top and bottom. There’s an irony here that informs most of the other works as well. The pink color and repeated patterns become something of a parody of the sameness of romance novels and of the empty repetitiveness of advertising displays for books and other objects. But considering the size of the wall, the care with which the wallpaper has been mounted, and the rather pleasurable pink of the paper, one can guess that Alatalo genuinely likes romance novels. Pink Project: Table by Portia Munson, with its large table full of pink combs, brushes, scissors, mirrors–all carefully arranged by type and size–refers to a woman’s vanity table and to a store-window display. It could be taken as a comment on excess or on the way we let objects define us. But again, the care with which everything has been chosen and arranged suggests a simpler motive: Munson finds these things fun to look at and wants us to share in her pleasure.

The pleasure invoked by these works is unsettling. We’re plunged into sensual fields whose very, well, pinkness seems to render analytical thought irrelevant, even silly. What saves the works from mindlessness, what makes them careful articulations of the engulfing quality of sensuality, is the double nature of their forms. Pink Romance and Pink Project: Table are both laid out according to grids, and the way the objects and colors seem to conflict with that underlying pattern creates a resonant tension. This is especially true of Mary Seyfarth’s Fanny, a faintly pink ceramic orb installed near the top of a rectilinear dark metal frame. The top of this frame is almost exactly the size of the globe, which pokes just a bit above the top metal rods. A vertical V-shaped cleft runs down the globe–the cheek cracks of the “fanny.” In color and shape this piece is much quieter than most of the others, but the near deification of this melon ass upon its pedestal is at once disturbing and funny, entertaining and paradoxical. The grid and circle common in (mostly male) minimal art yields to the suggestion of a backside, which becomes a critique of a modernist idealism that has generally excluded the body. At the same time the pedestal, a reference to traditional sculpture, is lofting not a heroic figure but a set of ass cheeks–which happen to be oriented so as to “moon” the viewer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of “Purl 2” by Jon McCafferty and photo of “Fanny” by Mary Seyfarth.