Gallery Bergelli

Essay by DeWitt Cheng

"Painting: The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic." -Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

" In this empire the art of cartography had reached such a perfection that a map of a single county covered a whole city, and a map of the empire that of a whole county. Finally, a point was reached when these colossal maps were no longer considered satisfactory, and the institutions of the cartographers made a map of the empire, which was as large as the empire itself and coincided with it point for point. Later generations, who were less prone to practice the art of cartography, came to realize that this vast map was useless and through some neglect abandoned it to the forces of sun and winters. In the deserts of the western regions [of the empire], home to beasts and beggars, there remained dispersed ruins of the map, but otherwise there were no remains of the practice of geography in the whole land." -Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science

It's hard to imagine now, but only two generations ago, abstraction and figuration were locked in mortal combat. (The accusations of treachery that greeted Philip Guston's 1970s abandonment of abstraction for his late, figurative style should be required reading for impassioned art revolutionaries.) Esthetic fashions come and go, but some, if not all, of the best art has always sought to capture the world of appearances and to examine it in some transcendent light, sub specie aeternitatis: to show flux and eternity fused. John McNamara makes surrealist photocollages and then slowly covers with them with a layer of oil paint, mixing not only figuration and abstraction, but also raising questions about representation in the way that many photographers of constructed realities are also doing.

McNamara is a painter, however, who has explored the creation of presence, or "sense of place" in painting for his entire career. A Bostonian trained at Massachusetts College of Art, he initially painted turbulent Abstract Expressionist fields inset with stylized, totemic figures and rectangular apertures: sketches or photographs suggestive of windows or electronic displays. The free-association imagery (Marilyn, animal skulls, feet, lips, Einstein, daguerreotypes, Cary Grant) was evocative, but ambiguous, defying narrative, or, rather, suggesting multiple narratives, with an implied reality lying beneath the welters of brushstrokes ("I have always loved the tiny mark."). In 1982, the Boston Phoenix critic Kenneth Baker (now art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle) praised the works' implied "presence of reality," or "the impression of inexhaustibility that defines reality." McNamara's "meandering composition[s] ... present you with more than anyone's memory can hold in the way of physical structure and color interaction." In 1986, The Christian Science Monitor's Theodore Wolff admired the paintings' "highly personal and provocative fusion of geometric and organic forms, their ability to objectify primal experience, and their knack of maintaining a dynamic, contrapuntal relationship between the products of impulse and those of calculation." Prestigious art fellowships (AVA, NEA) followed, as did articles in art magazines (Art News, Artforum) and purchases by major art museums (Metropolitan Museum; List Visual Art Center, M.I.T.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). In 1993, McNamara moved to the Bay Area, teaching first at San Francisco Art Institute and later the University of California at Berkeley, where his courses in drawing, painting, and Visual Studies, along with his mentoring of graduate-student instructors, continue, both popular and academically well regarded.

Despite such success, however, by 1989, McNamara felt the need for creative change: "the paintings had less and less meaning for me." After a five-month hiatus from painting, he decided to "make narratives," by incorporating photographic and other found imagery-"life's realities"-into his paintings. The commandeering of pre-existing, "low," vernacular material for "high" art derives from Cubist and Dadaist collage, developing with Johns' and Rauschenberg's hybrid 2D/3D artworks and Pop Art's mass-media image appropriations. McNamara continues this rich tradition by assembling printed images from magazines and other sources. Instead of presenting the works as is, however, or re-photographing them (or composing them in the computer), McNamara repaints the images in oils, preserving the source material in idealized, unchanging form, atop the original material. His unorthodox practice is analogous to, say, decorating mummy cases with encaustic portraits of upwardly mobile dead Egyptians, or making a 1:1-scale map of the topography underfoot, as in Borges' story quoted above. McNamara, fascinated with combining photographic frozen moments from different eras and areas, and preserving them in the amber of art, writes: "For me, collage is a time machine of sorts. The painted skin on top jettisons the photo document into the world of painting; but these people, places and things still speak from underneath the painted skin." The artist thus practices a kind of Photorealist painting-he particularly admires the complex urban landscapes of Richard Estes-crossed with conceptual performance and ritual, the painting being the end product of his focused attention, even compulsion. "Total fixation activity-I admire that tremendously," he says, of the paintings of Beat painter/collagist Jess Collins. "Obsessive, crazy - I have total respect."

Some of McNamara's eye-popping obsessive-compulsive covers or coverlets include "Wise Ass," a panoramic landscape reminiscent of Dali in its succulent palette and unfettered fantasy; "Encroachment," a merger of two images of high-altitude maintenance workers in New York City and Dallas; "The Suitors," depicting a Gothic Revival mansion and its upstart neighbor, a postmodernist work in progress "Unreal," a montage of children, wounded soldiers and movie spectators with the epic quality of nineteen-century history painting, but without its canned sentiments; and "White on Color," a large painting combining scores of images dealing with various types of "space" that have been edited with white paint and then preserved and muted by an overall glazing of white-tinted wax, resulting in a kind of artifact already dimmed and obscured by time. Social satire, surrealist fantasy and elegy vie with formal concerns in these works, but however ambiguous or enigmatic the narrative implications, the images are always compelling to viewers open to their eccentric seductions. With their surreal juxtapositions and cinematic jump cuts, they are, in the words of Gerrit Henry (Art in America), "ridiculous and sublime, all at once"-like real life.

John McNamara