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Tree Musketeer

Abstract Formalist Kate MacKinnon Liberates Herself by Riffing On Traditional Plein Air

Kate MacKinnon's "Bark Study 1."

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/17/2008

A series of studies captures some of the most intriguing painting Baltimore artist Kate MacKinnon has exhibited locally in recent years. Five panels of layered brown paint hang on the long wall in the first-floor CaseWerks showroom that Jordan Faye Block uses as gallery space, and they differ from one another only in the color intensity and layered density. Each features a pair of straight but unparallel lines that create a section of a skewed "V" in a bright, glossy brown, like the color of roasted espresso beans yet to be ground. Each includes amoebic seas of brown whorls that almost appear to float above the white background. On some, the brown sections are opaque and intense; on others, the brown appears to be swirled with traces of white, as if drops of milk froth floating atop a latte. Taken as a group they feel like subtle variations on an abstract theme, but what makes them more compelling than mere superficial visual dexterity is that they're intended to be something specific. In "Bark Study" 1 through 5, MacKinnon tries to make her abstracted formalist vocabulary become representational, and while it's not exactly a successful experiment, it introduces an infinitely more exciting element to her elemental visual world.

If only because a reconsideration of nature isn't what you expect from MacKinnon's calculating eye. Since she started working with Block in 2005, MacKinnon's Baltimore exhibitions always paired her--with Shinique Amie Smith in 2005, Alex Konder in 2006, and Don Cook in 2007--with an ill-fitting partner. It's not that artists' works have to compliment each other visually in two-person shows, but MacKinnon's pairings didn't always jibe intellectually with each other. In each instance, she was partnered with an artist who approaches his or her work from a decidedly theoretical point of view, and MacKinnon isn't so anchored to such critical determinism. Her canvases are process-intense, painstakingly organized maps of color, line, and form. She likes to work with the most basic representational elements--circles, straight lines--and turns the volume up on her colors to nearly overpowering. And like sound artists who play intense volumes of single tones off of deafening silence, the desired effect is more visceral than cerebral. MacKinnon's canvases reveal her to be a visual sensualist.

Which isn't to suggest that she doesn't have ideas behind the work, merely that her ideas must survive her hotly colored, bright, shiny, and dense process. Over the years, she has turned this robustly formalist eye on the man-made artificiality of jelly beans, Swatch watches, and the neon wilderness of Las Vegas. With Into the Woods, though, she turns to that most old-fashioned painting source, the natural world of trees and groves. And while the effect is very much one of trying to make a square peg fit a round whole, that friction between the subject matter and the technique is what gives the works their vibrant energy.

In some cases, that is. In half of the paintings here, MacKinnon merely applies her orderly vocabulary to the natural world. In two pairs of paintings--"Cool Night" and "Warm Day"; "Red Grove" and "Blue Grove"--she experiments with color as the defining, responsive factors. In each instance her visual ideas are similar: both "Cool Night" and "Warm Day" are tall canvases of vertical rectangles incorporating patterns of circles and skewed vertical lines against contrasting colors. "Cool Night" achieves its evening temperature through its navy elements resting on a pale blue background, "Warm Day" realizes its summer dusk through its rust brown and maize lines and circles popping off its cream white background. Both "Red Grove" and "Blue Grove" lend a sense of marshy submersion through their color schemes and vertical bands, which suggest an idea of looking through reeds into some inchoate, amphibian environment.

This strategy comes together in the signature work of the show, "Into the Woods." This large horizontal rectangle uses the organizational and color ideas of the grove and night paintings to create a panel that uses MacKinnon's elemental visual items to create an abstracted version of the natural world. The dominant color is shades of green, from the drab battle fatigue hue of the background to the Ghostbusters' slime brightness of the bubbly circles that appear to originating from the same source as the streaks of loafer brown lines jetting out of the panel's lower right-hand edge. Light green lines of varying thickness zebra stripe the panel, while a rhomboid block of Polo cologne-bottle green anchors the left quadrant of the composition. It's a painting that feels indebted to the natural world but not of it, which is its biggest problem.

"Into the Woods" differs only in color scheme and compositional density from MacKinnon's Vegas paintings, which use leaning vertical forms, clusters of lines, and floating circles to transform architecture into basic visual elements. "Into the Woods" is decidedly more ambitious, as MacKinnon explores better uses for less orderly arrangements of forms, less starkly contrasting colors, and eases away from the tidy angles, intersections, and shapes of regular geometry to permit irregular polygon shapes and conflicting lines to rest on her finely orchestrated panels. And it's this untidy element that captures the eye: it offers a way to get lost in the painting itself instead of its superficial orderliness. This very timid looseness has given MacKinnon's ardently formalist vocabulary an element of disordered chaos, and in such fleeting chaotic moments her works come alive in ways they haven't before.

And it's the chaotic mess of the bark studies that's so seductive. These paintings don't betray the precision of the other paintings here. Gone is the obvious rigid geometry of using concrete shapes as abstracted motifs. Gone is the heavy reliance on the straight line as boundary marking (only two such lines mark each canvases.) Gone is the feeling of the painting's creation in the controlled laboratory of the mind under ideal conditions. The bark studies suggest a certain recklessness--the way the brown and white colors inconsistently blend, the way the paint looks still wet and liable to rub off the panel, the way the splotches of brown and white paint achieve those murky, bulbous shapes of a drop of ink in a glass of water just before it dissipates. Something about the compositions feels beyond the artist's control--not that it necessarily is, mind you, as MacKinnon may be just as skillful in creating these shapes as she is in plotting and realizing her perfect circles and lines. But the mere suggestion of random chance at play in a vocabulary of such precision introduces a welcome and seductive friction, a sensuous battle of visual ideas that pulls you into their surfaces rather than keeping you at a detached distance.

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