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Art in America, International review.

NEW YORK A veteran painter with an impressive arsenal of studio skills and multilayered cultural references, James McGarrell persists in his engaging, go-it-alone eccentricity. Both a realist (of sorts) and a fantasist, he shows bravura technical breadth as a draftsman and colorist along with a penchant for visual excess and apparent contradiction. McGarrell’s abstract passages are often set within a descriptive language of representation, including tonal modulations, cast shadows and volumetric articulations. Among his devices are background planes of methodically gradated striations that shift from luminous to tenebrous: reds to caput mortuum, yellows to ochers and browns. Sharply contrasting flairs of purple or viridian float as though in front of the picture plane.

For example, underneath the engulfing, coruscating surfaces of his series of paintings titled “Window Jazz Inventions” (2005 to 2009), there sometimes lurk orderly domestic interiors. Rectilinear, architectural configurations suggest not only windows but a possible fireplace, mantel or tabletop; patterned wallpaper also appears. However, these are obscured by sudden eruptions of intense, free-floating geometries and ambiguous, irregular apparitions. In addition, full-tilt yellows, oranges and reds blast out with sensations of bright light and searing heat.

McGarrell’s painterly range is encyclopedic: loose, tight, opaque, translucent, geometric, automatist. With titles that are shorthand for saxophone masters (Trane, Dex, Hawk, Sonny, Bird), these works are a sort of visual jazz. But their force might more readily suggest an organ played with all the stops out: part Jimmy Smith but also part E. Power Biggs.

As is often the case with McGarrell, the paintings’ content remains intriguingly arcane. We are brought into a world that confronts and holds us with its commanding orchestration of disparate forms and references that range from Moghul miniatures to South Asian fabrics and Quattrocento Italian fresco; a baroque column is prominent in Hawk (2005)along with what looks like hanging game. And what to make of the intestinal tubes and other internal organs that move through these spaces? We have not been given the key: the paintings emphatically announce themselves yet withhold any definitive order through which to decipher them. It must be said that the gallery’s jammed installation served the work poorly. Individually the paintings are almost overwhelming. Compounding this effect with a dense presentation may have disinclined the viewer to venture into their separate theaters of painterly drama.

Photo: James McGarrell: Sonny, 2008, oil on linen, 80 by 60 inches; at ACA.

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