Art in America

— By Steve Vincent
Kelly McLane


It’s a first-rate painting that can, without specific geographic references, evoke the nature of a place. Such is the case with Kelly McLane’s The New Autobahn, a depiction of a sulfurous body of water, discarded tires and sickly-looking birds perishing near a mobile home. Something about this mephitic scene suggested California’s Salton Sea, and sure enough, the staff at CRG confirmed that McLane drew inspiration for the painting from that desert lake, one of the most Godforsaken places in America.

Not that she is interested in travelogues. The five oil-and-graphite works (all 2004) in her show “Chemical Tropical” concentrate on disintegrating monuments, ecological freakishness, oneiric pachyderms and the bleak Second Law of Thermodynamics, which explains that energy inevitably disperses into the universe and is lost. In Liquifaction, for example, the thighs and torso of the Colossus of Rhodes rise from septic-looking sand, while the hull of a beached schooner bearing the name “Hope’s a Slut” juts toward us like an accusing finger. Kep Off depicts an enormous stone fist and arm- crushing a generically classical building, while overhead a pair of anorexic palm trees stretch beneath a ruined elevated highway. Although McLane avoids narrative statements, it’s clear that whatever’s happening to the biosphere in her paintings is not good.

And not unattractive. With her light but detailed drawing style and subtle colors spread in thin glazes that frequently leave patches of the canvas bare, McLane manages to depict decay, degradation and possible catastrophe without relying on the melodramatic tableaux and hues of, say, Alexis Rockman. In Piece, elephants wander through a kind of nature preserve-cum-Superfund site, complete with ruins and a boat impaled on a tree trunk with orange lakes and clouds the color of chlorine gas. Far from hectoring us about the greenhouse effect, the work evokes a kind of polluted beauty – or beauty in pollution – akin to seeing a rainbow in a pool of oil.

This dispassionate view of man and nature brings an icy edge to McLane’s work, intensified by her color choice of glacial whites and gelid blues. In Big Gen, for example, a pale Indian elephant seems to shiver on a collapsing rope bridge with the deep blue sky and open sea providing a vertiginous backdrop. Without Surrealism’s glossary of psychosexual trauma, McLane’s dream states lease us with meanings that initially seem apparent only to diffuse like thermodynamic energy into chaos and uncertainty. Life may be out of balance and winding down to entropic nothingness, but the descent is gentle, and the view sublime. 

—Steve Vincent