I first saw Kelly McLane’s work in 2004 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I was working for the museum store and would spend the better part of my lunch hour wandering the galleries, looking for something inspiring. The exhibit was titled My Blue-Green Algae, and was in a small white room in the Project 244 gallery for emerging artists. The paintings were huge.
I have since moved to California and when I saw that the fall exhibit at the Huntington Beach Art Center featured Kelly McLane, I had to check it out. Fortunately, there was an informal discussion and gallery walk-thru on October 28th that I was able to attend.
The show is a kind of retrospective of her work from 2002 – 2009. “On the Road to Trona” was inspired by a series of road trips the artist took with her husband, heading east of L.A. to random small towns and barren desert landscapes. Several works in the show were conceived from these trips, but it is also an appropriate metaphor for the meandering journey of her work as a whole up to this point.
The earlier works were nostalgic of that small exhibit I saw back in Cleveland in 2004. Huge pale canvasses, landscapes and wildlife sketched with scrupulous detail in heavy graphite. Blank white expanses with hints of washes in yellows, blues, and greens. They are delicate and thought provoking. “Dreamscapes,” Kelly referred to them as, instead of landscapes.
I was caught by surprise by the garishly hued newer paintings. She is still incorporating both drawing and painting on a single canvas, a controversial method challenging the hierarchy of fine art even today. Now, however, the painting is taking the wheel and the intricate graphite markings have to ride in the backseat. Conceptually, the most notable difference is that she is less vague with her cultural references. Instead of the anonymous palm trees, elephants, and parachutes, you are face to face with specific characters: the Jolly Green Giant, Marilyn Monroe, even references to American Idol and the Swine Flu.
I used to think her delicate touches were a sign of great restraint and a knowing eye. After seeing all the works together and hearing Kelly McLane speak, it seems she has always been a little intimidated by color. At second glance, it does look like her colors are possibly “straight from the tube”, just thinned and layered beautifully. She is now experimenting more with bright heavily saturated chroma. Her personal excitement in her new techniques was inspiring, but I still prefer the subtle work from the old days.
Amongst the evening’s walk-thru, I did feel that I might be in the minority with that view. There was one painting from my first encounter in this show, No One’s Ark, and as we approached it as a group, Kelly almost dismissively waved it off as something she did for a show in Cleveland. She noted that the paintings in that show were barely seen by the public.
The informal discussion group was small, mostly middle-aged to older adults asking questions that the artist had already answered in the exhibit’s program. However, just seeing an artist walk around her art, what pieces and parts she gestures to and focuses on, was interesting enough to make it a worthwhile experience. Having her husband, and collaborator on the sculpture “I am Not a Ricist”, present was an interesting layer of her life and work as an artist revealed.
“On the Road to Trona” is a comprehensive collection of beautifully intricate artwork, both intimate and political. While I maintain my initial attraction to her earlier works, I am very excited to follow her future work and see what road she takes next.