Conor McGrady (2006)


Conor McGrady

Chicago Sun-Times by Margaret Hawkins

Lines drawn fiercely in McGrady’s ‘Purity’
Chicago Sun-Times, Jul 28, 2006 by Margaret Hawkins

In light of the latest outbreak of violence and military force in the Middle East, Conor McGrady’s new work at Thomas Robertello Gallery, though always topical, looks particularly timely. And it is no coincidence that “Purity,” his paintings of blank-faced, armed, uniformed figures and his drawings of stark institutional spaces, is executed exclusively in black and white, a color scheme that strongly suggests attitudinal absolutism. To see a person or situation in black and white means to see it as a symbol, a cardboard cutout standing in for an idea or a position. It is a color scheme suggestive of a world view that perceives things as good or bad with nothing in between. Seeing the world in black and white makes it easy to hate, to pass judgment, to fire a gun or drop a bomb. It’s the gray zone that makes judgment tricky. McGrady’s subjects tend to be either the enforcers of oppressive right-wing regimes or the institutional props and staging areas that make these regimes effective.


One wall of charcoal drawings offers up a bleak view of life in occupied territory. State buildings with pompous facades, fierce, leashed barking guard dogs, tipped-over burning cars: These are uncomfortable but timely reminders of governments or fascist groups that use both force and symbolism to serve their own ideologies. McGrady keeps his images generic enough so that we are never certain exactly which hot spot he’s referring to, but, of course, many come to mind. The drawings make us think of Nazi Germany but also of those newspaper photos of Americans’ own abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. It is McGrady’s figure paintings that really make his point best. Life-size, black-and-white figures on blank white canvases confront the viewer with an oddly soulless collective presence. “New Recruit” stares blankly at us, his eyes shaded by the visor of his cap that bears some kind of official insignia. His posture suggests a slightly defensive hunch in the shoulders, a tension borne perhaps of his readiness to reach for a weapon. He and other figures like him don’t seem particularly hostile, just overwhelmingly unsympathetic and empty, ready to implement maximum force without emotion, reflection or regret. Their generic leather uniforms gleam; they wear badges and hats and hard, shiny boots. One particularly chilling trio hangs in a row. On the right, “Leader,” an officer of some sort, stands with a lion; on the left “Servant,” another officer, holds a lamb, while “Chief” stands in the middle with his hand resting on a skull. At one level, the trio seems to be about military hierarchy, the easy execution of onerous tasks when mandated from on high. At another level, the formality and classicism of the symbolism lends historic depth to the triptych’s modern content. The flanking figures hold the ancient biblical symbols of peace, heaven being the place where the lion will finally lie down with the lamb, while the figure in the center embraces death. Are we meant to see the hypocrisy of governments that promise peace only through military action that first costs many lives? Or is McGrady’s intent to suggest that only in death will we find peace? McGrady cites Francisco Goya as the artist he emulates, and certainly the morbidity of the work and its grim outlook on human nature reflect this influence. What is missing — the absence of which makes McGrady’s work hard to spend time with — is the Spanish artist’s ability to find sensual delight in the depiction of the basest and most gruesome human beings. His paintings are luscious, beautiful, dizzyingly sensuous. McGrady’s are as cold and stark as the characters he depicts. Maybe that’s McGrady’s point, that the rigor and self-imposed pleasurelessness of his stylistic technique reinforce his message, but whether intentional or not, it makes looking at the work an exercise in political thought rather than a pleasurable as well as thought-provoking viewing experience. Goya seduces us with his surfaces and then shocks us with his content while McGrady only shocks and scares us. McGrady, who lives in New York after a five-year stint in Chicago, comes by his subject matter honestly: He grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. His work, though clearly universal, is based on personal memory, with the bleached-out images functioning as memories do, stripped of all surrounding context and extraneous detail to give them a terrifying and almost dreamlike intensity. Margaret Hawkins is a local free-lance writer. - – - ‘PURITY’: CONOR MCGRADY - Through Aug. 19 - Thomas Robertello Gallery, 939 W. Randolph - (312) 421-1587

Copyright CHICAGO SUN-TIMES 2006
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