Tatsuya McCoy: Hero Paintings

at Ten in One Gallery, through

July 13

Bernard Williams: Reconsidering the American West: The African-American Legacy

at Jan Cicero Gallery, through

July 31

By Fred Camper

Geometrical abstraction has long had an underlying idealism: artists from Malevich and Mondrian to 60s minimalists have presented simplified forms as signs of a deeper reality or as a mystical pathway leading the viewer toward some higher realm. But Chicagoan Tatsuya McCoy’s six new paintings, large works that consist mostly of elegantly precise geometrical patterns, don’t quite fit into that tradition. In one of the largest, a grid set against a bright red field, the horizontal lines droop slightly between the verticals, their curve suggesting a thread pulled down by gravity. The interjection of such a mundane material reality distances the work from mainstream abstract painting, whose forms are not meant to seem physical. Even further from the airy transcendence of Malevich and the ideal geometries of LeWitt is the work’s title: Webslinger.

“Webslinger” is Spider-Man’s nickname–the “heroes” of the exhibition title are comic-book superheroes. My first inclination was to bewail this diminution of abstraction’s lofty goals. But McCoy’s choice of subject isn’t unusual among younger artists: in a major shift of the zeitgeist that began with 60s pop, mass culture has become as much a subject for artists today as classical mythology was for painters of earlier centuries. More important, McCoy’s work is a good deal more complex and resonant than his source materials. Gravity may pull down the threads in Webslinger, but McCoy makes no other concessions to the irregularities of nature: his grid matches the canvas’s rectangle and flatness. It even seems to extend beyond the borders of the painting, monumentalizing the web, making it less a part of the material world.

Signal similarly combines abstraction and cultural allusion. Most of this large canvas is black, and from close-up it has the heaviness and mass of many heroic abstractions of yore. But step back, and at the top and bottom curved patches of yellow convert the blackness into the symbol of Batman, still massive and a bit scary since the wings seem to stretch beyond the painting’s edge. There’s an elegant pictorial ambiguity to Signal; as McCoy says, one would expect to experience the black as a void, but “if you see the symbol, the yellow becomes the negative space and black becomes positive.” It’s part of McCoy’s postmodernism that his paintings aren’t meant to work solely on the basis of their designs but are best understood through their references to mass culture–Batman or Spider-Man–a reading that converts their initially mysterious forms into, well, objects. Yet the paintings’ formal precision and the pictorial weight he gives these symbols make them subtler than flat comic-book imagery.

McCoy’s peculiar mix of precision and allusion, geometry and humor, is perhaps the result of a rather complicated life. Born in 1962 in Kyoto, Japan, he had a musician father who abused his mother. “She used to grab me and take me by train to her mother’s home. One of the first things I drew was a train. What prompted my mother to actually get the divorce was a portrait that I did of her. It was a picture of a woman with a broken arm and blood dripping out of a corner of her mouth. She said, ‘What’s this?’ and I said, ‘That’s you, mommy.'” His mother divorced when he was three and married an American when he was seven. They soon moved to the United States, where he had to learn a new language. By the time he visited his first art museum, in his early teens, McCoy had long been drawing characters from cartoons and TV shows. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he worked for a shipyard contractor for a time but didn’t really like it, began painting, and eventually went to art school.

There McCoy produced coded autobiographical paintings, continuing his early use of images to document trauma. While the paintings in this show hardly suggest emotional crisis, their fusion of pop-culture references with the clean language of minimalism does create a certain tension. The viewer cannot simply look–he must also use outside knowledge in order to understand. McCoy willingly surrenders aesthetic autonomy. “When Frank Stella started to do these black paintings he said, ‘What you see is what you see,'” McCoy told me. “I guess what I’m trying to do is sort of infect these geometrical abstractions with a more popular thing, something that’s more familiar to someone who’s not so art smart.”

Each of McCoy’s paintings is like a linguistic symbol: the bat shape is finally less a representation of something on Batman’s uniform than a sign that evokes the superhero. Silver Surfer, who often hurtles through space on a striped surfboard, is represented in Cosmic Herald as a silver slab striped with gray lines. The stripes go right to the edge, suggesting movement and creating a feeling of extension similar to that created by the massive “web” in Webslinger. Daredevil, who wears a logo of interlocking Ds on his red suit, in Daredevil is evoked by two wooden overlapping Ds painted red on the front but unfinished inside. Somewhere between painting and sculpture, these two letters have a disembodied quality: they can be seen as contextless absolutes. Yet McCoy’s little exhibit is also a kind of picture dictionary of superheroes, one that elevates pop-culture symbols almost to the level of icons.

Bernard Williams was born in Chicago in 1964 and grew up on the far south side, yet he was influenced by some of the same comics as McCoy: he remembers his earliest drawings as attempts to copy Spider-Man and other superheroes. Then, in a Chicago public high school, “I had a really good art teacher who stressed composing with the images instead of just copying. I remember her saying that we needed to lift images from different sources and put them together to create an image of your own that’s more personal. She was maybe the biggest influence on what I do now.”

What Williams does now is reevaluate the American west in paintings informed by revisionist historians like Patricia Nelson Limerick and William L. Katz, who point out that the African-Americans in the west were mysteriously omitted from earlier histories. If McCoy is a geometric minimalist, Williams is a maximalist, combining a multitude of abstract shapes, evocative objects, and figures. The nine paintings in this show, four portraits and five collagelike works, depict Native Americans, African-Americans, and symbols from both cultures. His works aren’t as strongly focused as McCoy’s, but I found myself in sympathy with their messy, somewhat undecided quality: this is the art of someone still searching, not judging.

And how could Williams judge? American history is full of morally ambiguous situations. Consider the “buffalo soldiers,” African-American U.S. soldiers, so named by Indians, who helped “win” the west after the Civil War. They performed bravely, and their achievements are only now receiving proper attention. But as Williams acknowledges, “They were also part of the American imperialist rampage through the west–they were responsible for putting down some of the last Native American resistance.” In Black Indian-Buffalo Soldier Williams sets four figures against a yellow field: two Indians on horseback, a silhouetted African woman holding a statue, and the face of a buffalo soldier. One of his eyes is a red circle, and a horizontal line links it to one of the Indians, offering the suggestion of a power relation, a hint of aggression. But the composition as a whole is nonhierarchical; figures, abstract shapes, and symbols–an African mask, for example–appear to float, loosely related but not part of a determined pictorial scheme.

Chasing the Indian is even more of a pastiche. A single buffalo soldier on horseback chases a lone Indian. Near the Indian’s legs a fernlike plant echoes the color of his headdress, linking him to nature; the soldier carries a flag, linking him to nation. Both figures are silhouettes, more symbols than individuated human beings, suggesting that their roles were determined by the forces of history. Rectangles are arrayed around them in a grid, each containing a different object or symbol–a gun, abstract color bands, figures apparently based on African and pre-Columbian art.

If these sprawling, almost indecisive paintings try to take on a little too much, that’s to their credit–to my knowledge, no one has successfully come to terms with the issues these pictures address. It may also be that Williams makes these collagelike works because he hasn’t yet assimilated his diverse influences: by college he’d made full-size copies of Caravaggio, had studied other history painters, and had held a job painting billboards. Later, contact with an earlier generation of African-American muralists in Chicago, some of whose work Williams helped restore, encouraged him to look to African subject matter.

Williams’s portraits tend to be more focused. A face made up of patches of color is set against a field of one or two solid colors, at least one of which also shows up in the face. Such repetition of color links the face with its surroundings, suggesting that the people depicted were creatures of their environment–just as the soldier’s face in Black Indian-Buffalo Soldier includes an abstracted western landscape. In the portrait Afro-Indian (Male), the colors of the American flag in the background show up in the soldier’s face as patches of red and a curved white stripe, movingly suggesting the way a citizen’s individuality can be subsumed by the ideology of government.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Daredevil” by Tatsuya Mccoy and “Black Indian-Buffalo Soldier” by Bernard Williams..