James McGarrell’s first solo exhibition took place in 1955, at the Frank Perls Gallery in Los Angeles (the same year that McGarrell, age 25, received a Fulbright). Forty years later, his work is one of the bearing walls of contemporary American painting. In this current series of double portraits, McGarrell has selected a personal pantheon of twentieth-century figures in the arts. Push the cutoff date back by a generation or so, and McGarrell himself might well be a candidate in a similar sweepstakes.
In so far as what we value reveals us, a self-portrait of McGarrell emerges in the selections he has made for “Young and Old.” Or to quote one of his subjects: “What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.” Ezra Pound, poised in a gondola between the Idaho of his birth and the island of San Michele (where both he and Stravinsky, who also appears in the series, are buried), negotiates a bend of the Styx that takes in a giant lion on the Venetian bank (“Disney against the metaphysicals.”). Pound the younger, in an ermine collar, mans the oars.
McGarrell’s paintings both yield meaning and retain mystery. They are built on a precision of syntax, not explanation. The conceit that allows the young Cole Porter to stand in the same pictorial space as his elder self is not far removed from McGarrell’s general command of a highly sensitized compositional field, in which figures are defined by spatial relations. Poses take on a symbolic density, and emotional vanishing points extend to patterns, passages, ideas of association, dazzle and trash. What is astonishing is that this is accomplished as a matter of course in McGarrell’s work. It’s what he does.
Lists are polemical. Not Ella or Sarah, but Billie. James Joyce is predictable, Elizabeth Bishop, a surprise. Orson Welles gets best director, and Edwin Dickinson becomes, to paraphrase John Ashbury, a painter’s painter’s painter.
We are able to recognize allusions and iconography identified with each of the subjects (fame is akin to figuration). Chaplin was also a musician and composer (he wrote the song “Smile”). Nabokov plays chess with himself in front of a backdrop of white birches mixed in with sunlit, leafless trees casting long shadows. It’s a scene that has the value – but not the distance – of a formal invention, where the hand conveys its immediate event, and where the affections of the eye surface and insist. McGarrell is visible there.
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