IN FOCUS #1 – “Looking Backwards: 2 Shows recently Closed at Katzen”

A pair of exhibitions taking place within the American Museum at the Katzen Center’s ongoing involvement in DC visual culture, one of them the first in a series sponsored by its newly founded “Alper Initiative for Washington Art,” closed recently at the end of May. Reviewing them thus retrospectively seems apropos, in fact: not only were both dealing with material from that cultural past, but “Kevin MacDonald: The Tension of a Suspended Moment” presented a retro-spective of that deservedly well-known “local” artist’s oeuvre, ending in 2006.

Michael Reidy, Portrait of Kevin MacDonald, incorporating his drawing The Embassy, 1981. Pencil, color pencil, collage, 25 x 32 in. Courtesy Robin Moore.

That as well as “Twisted Teenage Plot,” a show remembering Downtown’s contextual crossovers between the city’s punk-rock and contemporary visual art scenes of the 1970s-80s, look backward: at moments sequenced out of one’s own personal cultural “history” too. Having put Kevin MacDonald’s work in a 1984 exhibition I curated for the Williams College Museum of Art, about DC’s specific character as a place for making art and a dozen contemporary artists’ reflection of that nature in their creative production, that time came almost overwhelmingly back to me on seeing them: having lived it while then working in a private gallery.

Those were the days: that is, when there still were lots of such galleries, this one at Dupont Circle; and MacDonald’s oeuvre looks both gladly familiar yet in some ways quite new, with unexpected aspects or corners of it asserting themselves. For example, the extent to which it is unpopulated—except for a few images with art historical angels, and an incantatory dinner scene (harking back, in turn, to Kevin’s having worked at The Phillips Collection, given its reference to their famous Renoir Luncheon). And of course, there were its implicit artist as well as his viewers. Also, the degree to which it is Surrealist in fundamental nature: think Magritte, the visual uncanny and its reduction of reality to psychological effect.

In addition, re-acknowledging the resonance of its over-arching melancholy; something like, “these are the facts of life,” not quite celebrating them but exploring their texture and the visual patterns they form. And the gentle, insistent rigorousness in approaching his chosen evocative motifs: as icons of his and our collective memory of the things around us: seeming particularly moving in the context of a Washington currently morphing at warp-speed, in the direction of what has become a different metropolitan context than it was before. Driven by extreme real estate investment and urban development, now become a mecca for millennials, Washington is no longer (or at least what it once was); and having previously paid homage to its former nature as a particular locus for cultural production, as well as having reported on it over a more recent period for this publication, “Twisted Teenage Plot” and “MacDonald” are reminders of our pasts.

Kevin MacDonald, UVATAC (Urban Verbs at the Atlantis Club), 1978. Graphite and color pencil, 15 x 22 in. Private collection.

Particularly the former, smaller of these appropriately co-appearing shows is of a “documentary” nature: thus making more tangible what is now lost or has gone missing from the not-already-entirely-defined city setting that was then. It felt characterized by: large areas which were still undeveloped and therefore their rents were low (affording the possibility of artists’ studios, galleries and clubs); an “alternative” feel about some of its subcultures (which tended to overlap and/or collaborate, personally too) despite a federal bureaucracy’s stolid presence; and a certain experimental counter-cultural quality of the visual-art as well as musical endeavors (often as we could see here generated by some of the same figures). There prevailed—somehow despite the obviously competitive nature of relations between artists are also struggling to become more prominent, admired and saleable than their colleagues—somehow a sense of comraderie and bonhomie, as well as considerable mutual stylistic influence, insider jokes and risk-taking. It was a context where the stakes were not so high as to preclude a “belonging-to;” and undertakings such as Washington Project for the Arts depended on all these.

Kevin MacDonald was a central participant in both visual and audio “scenes,” which is why it is especially appropriate these shows hung simultaneously at the Katzen. Looking at his deservedly extensive retrospective, several points seem to insist upon being made, though so many images are included in this show; and unknown facts buried in its modest catalog, essays (by art critic Lee Fleming, the other by Robin Moore) and detailed time-line, it is daunting to single out the most crucial. Nonetheless, first, despite the on-quick-glance seeming simplicity of many of his best works, this artist’s oeuvre is not only replete with art historical allusions, but the color-pencil on paper medium (at times combined with others) he chose is among the most painstaking and time-consuming one. Hopper and Sheeler are certainly among underlying traditions within which MacDonald is operating, while particular pieces pay other if often ironic homages: Barnett Newman’s Collage (1978), where a door ajar provides the characteristic “zip;” the visual language of Totem (1989) could almost be a DeChirico, except for its avant-la-lettre TV; Restaurant Booth, W.Va (1991) is a Cubist still-life (there are others, but I am not able to tackle some of the allegories, given their encryption).

Second, these works are autobiographical; while this might be said of almost any visual artist’s creations, MacDonald’s seem particularly so: their motifs drawn not only from his Silver Spring and DC environs, including diner and club interiors he frequented, but also “documenting” in a sense the atmospheric feel and unique phenomena of places he visited (Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Ocean City, West Virginia, Avalon NJ). But even more personal seem the images of a pause in the creative process or a moment caught in the past, meditative, as much about internal states of mind as portrayals of objects: Eighth Grade Dance(1975); Desk by the Window (1980) Morning Coffee (1986); Snowstorm on Avenue A (1987); even Urban Verbs at the Atlantis Club (1978), andSuburban Apotheosis (2000). These are explicitly about mood, or the artist’s finding a visual metaphor for it: conveying feelings evoked in him by his invention of an unpopulated everyday.

Kevin MacDonald, Snowstorm on Avenue A, 1987. Oil and canvas on wood, 47 x 33 in. Private collection.

Third, many of his titles are important, and not infrequently in an ironic way. Although they may appear simple “labels” for what is depicted and/or where, it is relatively often they imply subtle deadpan humor enhancing their subjects. To choose a few: Michael Clark in Bondage (1984), an architectural façade whose progression of window curtains is increasingly “tied up;” The Convergence of Chairs and Table as Seen by Architecture (1985), where a small white building’s window seems as if it is observing garden furniture chairs advancing on the table; Seascape (1986), solely a schematic wave with its foam like marshmallow fluff; Sal’s Gerbil Farm (1987), which while it may have existed conjures visions of tiny furry hordes having nothing to do with these serenely floating blow-up rafts; Dream Clean (2000), a dry cleaner’s façade in a strip mall promising more than it can doubtless deliver, with multiple implications; and his later series of suburban dwellings, most obvious in its word-play being Little House on the Tract (2002).

Kevin MacDonald, Dream Clean, 2000. Watercolor, ink wash, watercolor pencil, tea, coffee, graphite, 14.25 x 14.25 in. Courtesy Adamson Gallery.

Fourth, there are what can be called anomalies within this flow of meditative and unpopulated visual “takes,” which seem also to need to be integrated into this account. The show’s earliest picture and lead-in for Fleming’s essay, for which the retrospective is titled, is The Tension of a Suspended Moment (1963): a red car, without occupants and passenger door hanging open, seeming abandoned in woods at night, calling to mind the opening of a detective thriller movie still. Yet contrary to Fleming’s reading, if these protagonists have even temporarily left the scene, in a vast majority of the rest of MacDonald’s subsequent works, they or others do not “return” and nothing about the images implies that they will. In other words, it is not “…his interiors and landscapes that capture the suspended moment– the hushed interval between the human presence leaving, and perhaps returning to, the scene. There is always tension in MacDonald’s renderings of places without people…” (13). It seems rather that in this earliest work its “passengers” left that (art-crime?) scene, and never returned; leaving the bulk of his images to be about that absence, and “serene” seems more the right word. Unrelated to “John Constable,” they rather place themselves in a Contemporary art continuum: at the time, post-Pop’s ambiguous celebration of familiar objects.

But again, what about those seeming exceptions to a quite unified if evolving body of work, for might they proffer clues to the rest of it? Choosing two of the most striking: first a four-section The Decay of the Angel (1997), where a music-making Renaissance angel  (albeit with the addition of a large fly, and her sister-figure crying in a background pergola) proceeds to descend to earth in the form of increasingly violent geishas, all of them still bearing but seeming to defy their wings. That is perhaps more, or maybe less, of a visual puzzle than the most remarkable Dinner at Herb’s (also1997): a scene of celebrating with friends that has been turned into a collage, a round table tipped upward so one can see the meal as Cubist still-life, chairs decomposing and twisting into component parts, his fellow diners’ faces transformed into garish Balinese dance masks with a cabaret-like floozie presiding above. One cannot help wondering what else they consumed that evening, given this image’s hallucinatory quality; but its art historical style-mixing is reinforced by a contemporary self-portrait employing a similar stretching of past stylistic modes to produce a quite far-out hybrid result.

Kevin MacDonald, Memoria Suburbiae, 2005. Silkscreen print, 13 x 17 in. Courtesy Adamson Gallery.

So, in sum, considering the unique pictorial world MacDonald created, we should not forget: their being art historically informed, on multiple levels; that they are in a profound sense “autobiographical,” sharing with us places and moods part of his daily life; the not-infrequently ironic or double-entendre significance of many of his titles, as important as the images paired with them; and that there are some contradictions among the “signature” unpopulated, meditative style of much of his oeuvre (giving viewers a clue as to what lay under their surface?). Perhaps it is MacDonald’s series of suburban houses, coming towards the end of his career as they do, which seem so affecting and multi-facetted in their implications, despite their straightforward formal simplicity. These attendant “takes” range from one possibly critical of development practices producing uniformity responding to desire to own (Suburban Apotheosis, 2000); or almost cynical (Little House on the Tract, 2002, its setting detached from an originating prairie); or the straight-labeled Ranch (2001) and Cape Cod (2002) referring to house types, yet in the modern world far from their initial functions or locations.

But it is the artist’s final screen print Memoria Suburbiae (2005), of a “generic” 50s split-level his wife writes in her essay was their home and a “near twin” of her present one (47). Such reticent pictorial memorials, this show, its accompanying “Twisted Teenage Plot” kudos to those who had no trepidation about combining synaesthic possibilities then, make me want to be able to talk to Kevin about this. Because as Robin Rose has put it, “we never did anything without the Mac.” (24)

Julia Bernard, Editorial Consultant


As the Alper Initiative for Washington Art was only mentioned above, it seems relevant to further characterize this recently established institution-within-an-institution at the AU Museum’s Katzen Center. Funded through the generosity and community concern of artist/alumna/philanthropist Carolyn Small Alper, this has been “initiated” with the goal of sponsoring exhibitions (at least 5 per year), providing resources for gathering and digitally archiving material relating to art from the DC Metro region, and supporting research about it. In the interest of encouraging contemporary artistic production and that of the future as well, this endowment also intends to foster social communication between the city’s now-practicing artists: organizing lectures, films and other events (as the University’s “News” home page of 27 April 2015 tells us). Alper studied studio art under the tutelage of Morris Louis and Gene Davis; and in 1971 participated in founding the cooperative still-existing Foundry Gallery. This new development of course fittingly follows the Katzen’s previous ongoing support for and consistent exposure of Washington art as a priority under its Director/Curator Jack Rasmussen over the past decade of his hyperactive tenure. While it might be pointed out by a cynical observer that such “institutionalization” (as it were) of “Washington art” may in some ways be useful in the increasing “branding” of this city by the aforementioned real estate developers, with its cultural resource status adding to its residential value. One might also conceivably ask, what is Washington art: that made here, only within its traditions, and is there only one?


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