Wax and wane
Solo show trades in the familiar at Marcia Wood Gallery
Timothy McDowell's paintings pine for the past. Like purposefully antiqued linens that have been dipped in tea to age them, these canvases have an intentionally distressed, worn appearance — a glossy patina of time's hard knocks.
McDowell's paintings feature flowers and plants and are created on linen with encaustic paint, which contains beeswax. They traffic in an aesthetic that will be familiar to Atlantans who have surely seen their share of work by local artists who seem to love the antiqued, distressed moody qualities of encaustic. The technique is often used to convey Southern fixations on history, soil, time and the veneer of memory, which can both fix and distort the past.
There are certainly plenty of Atlanta artists doing comparable work — meaning technically solid but not necessarily mind-bending. But McDowell has been imported for a solo show at Marcia Wood Gallery. And like some Southern artists, McDowell (who was born in Texas and currently lives in Connecticut) seems to share an investment in both the past and painting's more decorous and ornamental tradition.
The work often suggests classical still life compositions seen through a postmodern lens because of the way they question painting's usual ideal perspectives. The paintings seem theoretical in the way they re-envision the landscape or the still life as not one perfect view but as multiple ones — as if to capture the torn, addled perspective of the artist looking at the landscape more than the landscape itself. McDowell superimposes little squares that look like photographs onto the painting to give two views of the same phenomenon calling into question the truth of what we are seeing. To shatter painting's illusory dimension and lay bare the painter, he has a streak of paint dribble from the edge of a pear in "Column." The works go back and forth between such conceptual strokes and an overall prettiness and pleasure in that prettiness.
McDowell's works feature wide open color fields washed in smeared brown, sepia and the rich reds and greens of ancient frescoes. Onto those dense backgrounds he has overlaid images of trees or seed pods, flowers or ornamental objects that suggest door knockers or drawer pulls and others that look like limestone cornices on turn-of-the-century buildings. The paintings resemble two-dimensional scrapbooks containing pressed flowers, theater programs and matchbooks — they are something between tangible memento and a psychological landscape.
In works composed of multiple layers like "Blue Swatch," there are raised, glossy accretions of encaustic that look like pottery fragments. The canvases are palimpsests whose layers serve as metaphor for time and history. The funnel-like object seen in "Erased Estate" could be a flower blossom, or a Victrola horn that emits sound. In either case the same mood prevails, of botanicals and fragile details of a lost world. The paintings can also feel musical in the way some objects appear in the foreground, or exist as a faint "ghost" image in the background, emerging vaporously through the murk like the various aural layers in a musical composition.
Not only do the objects McDowell chooses to paint give his work an impression of antiquity. The distressed, water splattered look of the paintings, also reference time's passage. Circular rings on the paintings' surface suggest water damage on wood veneer or the bubbled, brown deterioration of old photographs.
"Green Belt" is one of the show's more developed pieces, perhaps because it so effectively conveys the physical dimension to the fissures and stresses of time lost in the artist's careful, restrained, pretty technique. In it, the rich mossy green hue of McDowell's canvas is worn away to patches of ivory, giving the effect of old wallpaper torn to reveal scraps of plaster behind.
But despite efforts to capture the mood and look of time, the overall impression McDowell's work gives is of an inert loveliness. And the time-worn elements feel not too far from distressing a jelly cabinet to make it look like it's been in the family since the Civil War. McDowell's paintings are purposefully weathered looking, and it's hard not to see them as products of a culture whose history, comparably speaking, doesn't stretch too far back but strives for the aura of another age.
It is the object-ness of these paintings, the meticulous care taken to create their general mood of the past, that is more central than any larger concept or statement. Some will surely be satisfied with that surface dimension to the work, but the paintings can provoke real frustration. With such careful technique, McDowell seems capable of something richer, of using the prettiness of his technique to get at something deeper. Certain works like "Plantation" have a lushness that could be pushed further so that these green leaves and fruit might move beyond their decorative, ornamental dimension into something more vivid. I n work like this you feel that if McDowell juiced up the vegetation and worried the canvas more, instead of being so polite, something darker or more enticing could come through. But too often McDowell's labored, careful effect only makes the work as aloof and unemotional as pages from a history textbook.