I first encountered Christina McPhee long ago in Chelsea, in a time and place that we might both wish to forget. Like the entire art scene then, the gallery was small and quiet, even amateurish, and people still wondered whether painting is dead. She plainly did not.
Since then, she has often turned to newer media. The digital prints in La Conchita Mon Amour convey detail and color with perfect clarity, and they layer memory upon memory. When colors vanish, they do nothing to cushion the impact of black and white. They translate easily into video, where the fragmentation builds into unspoken narratives. They recall art media and mass media alike more than old-fashioned journalism. She often intersperses them with abstract drawings, to complete the story.
McPhee knows the irony of crowded cities with too many memories. She has photographed San Francisco streets. She has documented her own travels through California. However, no one would mistake her work for street photography. One has trouble classifying it as photography at all. Here I focus on her digital prints before returning to a very different eclecticism in her paintings. A separate two-part review turns to her data-driven art and whether digital art can lie.
McPhee's digital prints do what glazes on canvas cannot. They appear not glossy or subdued, but clear, unreflective, and pitch dark. For all their size, one cannot mistake them for the fashionably large, static photographs of Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky. Rather, like Barbara Ess or Barbara Crane, they contain fragmentary images on a range of scale, from murals to contact prints. They flood gallery walls with deep color and sheer information. I had never seen black so transparent to the light.
They also record a flood. La Conchita Mon Amour documents the aftermath of debris flows that devastated a small coastal town in southern California and remain visible to this day. Built on a mudslide, La Conchita has had its share of disasters, as in 2005, when rains washed out the roads and ten people died. McPhee mimes another kind of disturbed flow as well—of observation in real time. She returned to the site at one-month intervals, with its crushed cars, vacant yards, improvised gardens, and battered homes. When she calls the community's gestures a "vernacular shrine to the dead," she could be speaking of her work.
Her overlaid images can look at one glance like landscapes, at another like personal histories. What looks at first, too, like sheer blackness hides traces of intense color. She allows herself explicit naturalism, but also the appearance of rubble. Imagine a nonsite by Robert Smithson pouring its contents off the wall. Susan Sontag asked whether a "straight" photographer's point of view exploits the suffering of others, but can an artist's transformation of the scene avoid that danger, or must it add yet another appropriation? It can surely pour out the fragments so that others can decide.
It can reimagine human experiences buried and lost as well. McPhee has also appeared in a winter group show, "Persona-Personae." The title corresponds to a recurring theme of modern and recent art, as with Cindy Sherman and the ego fixation of Lucas Samaras. It goes back at least to Pablo Picasso's empty masks. Jacques Derrida asks one to see every presence as a "supplement" and every representation as a trace. Digital art promises to bury the traces ever and ever deeper. It promises, too, the flatness of a tablet, on which they keep resurfacing.
The title feels right for McPhee's photos. One can hardly begin to locate all their personae. Any photograph exists as a multiple, but these aim consciously for multiples. Past artists at the same gallery pulled off polished appropriations of late Modernism. Too often, though, the parts just would not add up. With McPhee's digital collage, the disconnect makes a dynamic subject in itself.
The construction of the prints suggests a breakdown in time and succession—what Gilles Deleuze in describing New Wave film calls "beyond the movement-image." Their very title puns on Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film by Alain Renais. They make use of both overlay and juxtaposition, sometimes of repeated images or close variations, like contact sheets or a film strip. Blackness further labels the prints as a representation of the process and materials behind their making. If this sounds like a healthy dose of Modernism within the frenzy of the media age, so be it. The photos began with a medium-format or digital camera, and they work as abstraction or as new media.
In fact, an abstract drawing comes between each pair of prints, and a video plays along with them. McPhee's pencil swirls across the page in loose clumps of curves, leaving plenty of white space. They could stand for successive moments in crossing an actual landscape. The video ticks off a further collage of photographs, like a metronome. They play out like a secret history. And that history might start with a single color, black.
The media interrupt one another and respond to one another. Still, one should not see prints this alive as a single, overcrowded composition. They invite one to linger over spaces that others have left behind. During McPhee's gallery talk to accompany the exhibition, a listener wished that more flowers offered hope amid the bleakness. Yet her fields of white already offer spaces for uncertainty and hope. So does the luminosity of her blacks.
Does reference to a film strip make you think of a detective, holding the evidence up the light? Does film noir stand for a heightened elegance, a lost world of fedoras and leggy brunettes? McPhee has spoken of the allure of trauma. In past video, too, she has presented a natural disaster as a crime scene. Looking at the sites here, one starts to wonder where all the people went. Maybe "painting is dead" refers to them.
One can hear their unseen presences in the video, which incorporates muffled voices and the harsh sound of traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway. All three media, however, linger over absences, from empty lots to traces of the artist's hand. One can think of the accumulated blackness as a crossing out. To steal again from Derrida, the images are "under erasure." And the French, sous rature, derives from the verb rater—to miss. One can count the artist among the missing persons.
Presences appear in earlier prints, too, with their vertical format and the dimensions of a bedroom mirror. Even in her abstract paintings, one can make out a head thrown back, barely showing through a blackened surface. The prints mix expressionism, self-revelation, and feminist irony. They have more in common with an artist like Cecily Brown than she may let on. One can see the appeal of the digital, with its freedom to combine presences. But then McPhee does keep returning to painting.
Her urban photos belong to yet another tradition, of photojournalism and the American scene. Here, too, presences slip away, with an inviting sexuality. An earlier version of this review paired her with Catherine Opie. Best known for gender bending portraits, Opie also has her "American Cities." (I have given her a page to herself.) McPhee still deserves to be seen in that context.
While working on her abstract landscapes, McPhee lived in the Southwest, where one can afford nostalgia. She has displayed them with fragmented photographs in a horizontal format that suggests a landscape's horizon line. Again she comes easily to installation as mixed media. Still other works use pencil for line or thick handmade gray paper as ground. Their quiet layering recalls both Brown's games with surface and a formalist's with a painting's support. They are more personal, though, than either one.
In her experiments with interactive software, the viewer can stretch or compress sound and images with a mouseover. A video plays out moments of a dream. On a Southwestern highway, she lies face up with her head and upper torso on camera, like Cindy Sherman without the disguise or disgust. As the camera circles her head, a cryptic narration unfolds, speaking of loss in relationships and in art. Are they hers or the viewer's? She is not explaining.
In McPhee's digital prints, intervention into California's seismic landscape becomes at once a science project, a detective story, a map of the world, and an elusive self-portrait. They, too, track a natural disaster as a tale of cultural decisions and human lives. She incorporates real-time geologic data along with her portrait. She also raises questions about the stability of either. Again, a separate review examines these more closely. It asks about the claims of both media to truth.
These strains come together in her mammoth prints. From small pleasures, she has gone to covering the gallery as itself a landscape. Vertical prints adopt the format of recent panel paintings, like doors leading from the gallery to riskier territory. They stop short of the starkness of the vertical frames to the dark horizontals of La Conchita Mon Amour. They also lack the disguised narrative in those past videos. However, McPhee now pulls together a greater density of phenomena than ever before. She obliges one to linger over a shattered landscape.
She also places that landscape in the brutal context of capitalist exploitation. Blacks become marks of human erasure of the lands, and neon colors become signs of ravaging. The juxtaposition of images corresponds to the displacement of lives and property. Their overlays correspond to physical barriers within the work, in fences and barbed wire. The printing against broad bands of white above and below adds another fatal distance. The sheer beauty only makes matters worse.
Do I want to turn away from references to disaster after 9/11, when people seem determined to exploit omens of disaster? (Sontag sounds better all the time.) Is McPhee's mix of analog and digital a transitional point on the way to somewhere else? Between drawing and photography, is her work slipping away? Maybe, but now she describes actual slippage, in those mudslides. Now, too, transition and slippage have become the conditions for her art.
In her first New York show, McPhee was still exclusively painting and drawing—and drawing on a large scale with paint. An identification of drawing with painting courses through postwar American art, from Abstract Expressionism's drips through Minimalism's wall drawings. She did not, however, seem nostalgic for their iconic structures. She was not rehashing gestural or geometric abstraction, like too much abstraction then and now. Maybe she has had enough of that. Rather, she was layering overt brushwork so that color could build its own mass and volume.
Rightly or wrongly, I remember that first show as sparer than her later work. She has evolved toward painterly form, while often returning to drawing. In retrospect, though, one can see her appreciation of Chinese art as well. She draws from its calligraphic traces and hints of landscape. She might approach its tranquility even more closely, except for one thing: her work is explosive.
In two tall paintings from after 2000, color comes in bursts of layered brushwork. It can explode from within, as if through a thick atmosphere, or move downward like an implosion. One painting layers white over red, where red determines the palette while white asserts surface and volume. The other's dark purples give way at bottom to a tunnel of light. A vertical of craquelure is itself both drawing and volume. The heavy support for the two paintings, wood that simply rests on the floor and leans against the wall, adds to the sense of color as mass.
Now painting is back, big time, taking its cues from everywhere at once. Abstraction these days borrows as easily from figuration, pop culture, or conceptual art as from late Modernism. It blurs distinctions among painting, photography, and appropriation entirely. Christina's interlacing curves have contemporary parallels in Julie Mehretu, Sue Williams, Joanne Greenbaum, or Sara Sze. Her art's relationship to landscape carries conceptual weight as well. After all, line and color convey mass in the real world, too.
And that, too, has a parallel in China, where political and cultural change has altered the landscape. Her digitally assembled panoramas are both beautiful and sobering. They record the incursion of corporate interests on the California landscape. They speak to her interests in photography, new media, and online discussions. Yet their fiery yellows recall one painting's reds and their darkness the other painting's purples. Their horizontal format itself recalls eastern tradition.
Of course, Asian art is explosive in its own way. Just try to enlarge a calligraphic brushstroke to the scale of rivers and mountains without an explosion. Asian American artists now draw on both eastern and western traditions, with Modernism alongside Chinese poetry. McPhee herself is not interested in quotation. Maybe California depends on not having a past. Still, when painting as drawing meets painting as color, it can and should look a part of this world.
Christina McPhee ran at Cælum through February 26, 2000, and at Sara Tecchia, through November 22, 2006. "Persona-Personae" ran at the latter gallery through February 25, 2006. Her painting and multimedia are also featured in Whitney Artport for March 2005 and online. Portions of this review first appeared in Artillery magazine. A related article turns to McPhee's digital landscapes.