Both, of course, and all. Mary McCleary’s work eludes reductive commentary. Though often dense with text, her collages don’t come with annotations. Even her titles tease. Getting her allusions doesn’t ensure you get her. Viewing the works of some artists once exhausts them, like knock-knock jokes, the sort kids love.
I saw an exhibit of her collages in October (see here and here), and felt anxious about the time. I wanted to linger with each before moving on to the next, but didn’t have all day. I tried to stifle the urge to interpret and pigeonhole, knowing such impulses are defensive, intended to defang what disturbs. I sensed McCleary’s collages judging me, weighing my prideful pretensions, the way I felt more than forty years ago when a high-school English teacher loaned me her college anthology of short stories. That’s how I first encountered Flannery O’Connor – “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
The passage quoted above is from Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (ISI Books, 2011) by Gregory Wolfe, who devotes a chapter to McCleary, as he does to Geoffrey Hill, Evelyn Waugh and Marion Montgomery, among others – prestigious company. Wolfe notes the frequency with which McCleary applies toy eyes to the surfaces of her collages. The eyes, he writes,
“intimate that there may be an unseen presence—an order of grace and truth—hidden in the very fabric of being. Those eyes may be interpreted as full of judgment, especially when the subject of the painting is sin and folly, but they can also be interpreted as symbolic of an ordered love that transcends our fallen world and encompasses it. The grid [of eyes] is both screen and gateway.”
As Wolfe notes, McCleary’s collages are neither didactic nor preachy. They embody what O’Connor called “the moral sense and the dramatic sense.” They tell engaging stories, usually in media res, and provoke laughter. McCleary is very funny, as is O’Connor. And like another Catholic writer, she revels in paradox, defined by Chesterton as “truth standing on its head to gain attention.”