In 1963, when John Coltrane recorded “I Want to Talk about You” on the album Live at Birdland, it was common practice to put a four bar break at the end of a piece, allowing a single instrument to chart, in abrupt silence, an abstract height from which to descend to the tune’s final chord. In this case, Coltrane’s four-bar improvisation veered away at the last second from its anticipated conclusion and, in a pure trajectory of sound, went on for an unprecedented three minutes. It was a spellbinding feat.
James McGarrell’s new paintings – four of which are named after legendary sax men, including TRANE – represent a major shift in the artist’s work. Coming late in a long and distinguished career as a figurative artist, these paintings are surprising not only
for their abstraction but, like Coltrane’s tag, they push a set of conventions across a threshold into vivid, unrehearsed space. They catch us looking.
Along with TRANE, the three other large paintings in the show are BIRD, HAWK, and PREZ – aka Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. (DODDS, DEX, and BEN are still in the studio.) Of the eleven smaller works on view, three are reversible diptychs, a form McGarrell introduced in the early nineties, titled with the names of songs like FUN TO BE FOOLED and DAY IN, DAY OUT. A persistent theme in McGarrell’s figurative work, music, and especially jazz, has in these recent paintings undergone a subtle transformation from subject matter to signifier. It places the paint itself a step closer to the viewer, where it demands, like music, to be experienced directly.
Yet what gives these paintings an edge is not simply a shift from figuration toward abstraction. Every good figurative painter is aware of the abstract map of his own picture. The work of any of McGarrell’s peers – R.B. Kitaj, Howard Hodgkin, Alex Katz, John Walker – reflects an interior measure, stroke by stroke, of velocity and individual nuance. McGarrell’s paintings are abstract in a way that exactly emphasizes the dissolving fabric of representation. In these new works, where lyric pathways merge with a thicket of emotional undercurrents, the eye moves through extraordinary passages of paint, of marks like luminous fractals along an ever-changing boundary between image and pure abstraction. They are paintings that flirt with specific forms only to assert that light precedes them – from a section of BIRD where structural perspectives vanish into a surface of infernal hues, to an intimate yellow construction on muted blue ground in PREZ, to the expressive lilt of SWING, with its dusky pink lines and nostalgic green. In
every instance they coax the eye away from a concept-fixing rest. They keep the music going.
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