Sunday, October 30, 2011

`Prophecy Is a Matter of Seeing Near Things'

Seeing an artist’s work for the first time in person after viewing it for years online or in books is risky, a set-up for disappointment. Before entering the gallery I recalibrate expectations and try to shed them, knowing it’s not possible but hoping to simulate a first-time experience.  If the work is mediocre or lousy, I’ve lost nothing, only a little time. If it’s as good as I had hoped, or better, my pleasure is heightened by the sense of discovery and surprise.

Mary McCleary’s collages are better than I could have expected, more technically accomplished, more densely layered, more exuberant, funny, frightening and “literary” than I could have wished for. Twenty-seven of them are on display at Art League Houston through Nov. 12, and most can be seen on McCleary’s website.
Take “The Fall of Rome,” a small mixed-media collage from 2006. McCleary divides her rectangle into two triangles, blue above, white below, night sky and snow. Moving downward left to right along the diagonal is a herd of twelve reindeer, perhaps Santa’s. That’s it, except for a multi-colored strip of text running like ticker-tape around the perimeter of the picture. The text is small and unobtrusive, integrated unpretentiously into the design. Typed on it is the poem by W.H. Auden that lends its title to the collage. The final stanza comes as a sort of punch line to McCleary’s picture:
“Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.”
By taking Auden’s image literally, McCleary permits us to read his 1947 poem as if for the first time. She does something comparably comic and inspired in “Time the Painter,” a large (59-3/4 inches by 45-1/4 inches) collage from 2006. A man in overalls stands on a ladder (McCleary is fond of diagonals), painting a clapboard house. I should note that though her collages look like paintings from a distance and in reproduction, each is meticulously assembled from thousands of three-dimensional objects. Along the top edge of the collage is another of McCleary’s ticker-tape texts, this one unidentified but instantly identifiable--
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”
--as the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets. Another of my favorites among her works is “Trotline” (2009), in which a man watches as nine boys “bob” for apples hanging by strings from a trotline. Several of the boys have tags hanging from strings around their necks. One is labeled “2 Cor. 11:14.” In the King James Bible: “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” A trotline is a long fishing line strung with shorter lines, each ending with a baited hook. If, instead of being a Christian Scientist, Joseph Cornell had been an apocalyptically minded reader of the Book of Revelation, his work might have come to resemble McCleary’s.
Her collages are always reminding me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I don’t know whether she has read O’Connor or feels any conscious kinship, and I’m not suggesting anything so banal as “influence.” In an essay from 1960, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor writes of grotesque characters in contemporary fiction (principally her own, we infer):
“They seem to carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity. I believe that they come about from the prophetic vision peculiar to any novelist whose concerns I have been describing. In the novelist's case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.”
Images of paradise lost, of hell with a happy face, proliferate in McCleary’s collages. In near things she sees signs and portents.

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