Monument Valley

We’re on a Road to Nowhere: Patrick McGuire at the University City Arts League

by Ryan McCartney

through February 12, 2016

The first exhibition of the year at West Philadelphia’s University City Arts League shows that the institution has a lot to offer to the visual arts community. UCAL hosts a variety of services, classes and workshops, and also a respectable gallery space, where Patrick McGuire’s We’re on a Road to Nowhere – an exhibition environment with installed paintings, sculpture, sound, and architectural elements – is currently on view.

UCAL looks just like all of its neighboring West Philadelphia Victorian homes, so entering the gallery space has a certain feeling of discovery. McGuire immediately enhances this effect by putting a false arch into the gallery’s doorway, changing the nature of entrance. In fact, McGuire has not only altered the doorway, but has applied textured spackle to all of the walls of the gallery, quite similar to the kind of splatter coat or thrown spackle found in older homes where it is used to mask imperfect or less-than flat walls. It’s a choice that, along with the doorway, doesn’t quite register at first. Certainly not subtle, but so firmly rooted in the banal that realizing its application to the space serves as a flag of intention, a signal to pay attention.

At the center of the space is a round, grey platform, perhaps eight feet in diameter and six inches tall. Four slabs stand on top of it, equidistant around its perimeter, and oriented to each face towards the corners of the room. Each slab is the same approximate shape of the negative space of the arched doorway, each with a circular cutout at about eye level. A hybrid between a tombstone and a Flintstone’s door, their portals serve as viewfinders through which one can observe one or two of the many paintings that line the walls of the gallery. This changes the viewing experience from the standard one, in which a viewer is typically able to see the total arrangement of works on the wall as well as each individual piece. The totems at the center make it impossible to see the show all at once. Mounted on the ceiling, centered on the circular platform is a directional speaker, playing a muted track of what sounds like the hissing of wind. Listening a bit more, it seems clear that this is the sound of someone hissing and whistling, over and over. I like the impression this creates, that the artist is there, focused on making a faint wind, converting breath back to everyday phenomena. The sounds paired with pink gels covering the lights seem to secure this center structure as not only object or architecture, but as climate, an environment through which we might experience the show.

The nine paintings that surround the room are equally particular, as insistent in their own structure as the installation of the whole of the show. Layers of color wash over each other through a seemingly endless application of marks, marks that vary but really seem to become the same across all of the works. There is a repetitive ticking that constructs basic shapes – circles, rectangles, arches – that become portals, passages and characters through the momentum of consistent touch and its interaction with color and transparency. Titles such as Mirror Mirror, Window, Pool, and Double Vision help to create the sense that the works on the wall are working together to create a structure as well. Where at the center of the room I feel location and climate, at its perimeter I feel color as light, days, and nights. It is in the paintings that we really get to a sense of time. The surfaces achieve a state of finish that creates a suspension – a density of pigment, of color, of stroke has made the surface a singular moment, where one cannot distinguish linearity but rather must see everything at once. In that density, when we see the presence of the hand in each touch, we see a repeated statement: now, now, now.

The overall experience of Road to Nowhere is one of being present. The paintings speak clearly to that idea, as does the texture on the walls; there because it needs to be, to mark off the time in the space, with each bump as its own second, regardless of whether that second lies at noon or night, hot or cold, moving or still.  In this respect, the show feels like something of a monument, but one that includes the rough, the imperfect, and perhaps a bit of the comical. The man whistling, whispering in the microphone now seems to be there, insisting its presence, to say this, this, this.

Ryan McCartney is an artist, curator and director of the Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts. He lives and works in Philadelphia.