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“Moment to Moment”
 — By Christopher Miles
 

It’s an old saw that truth is stranger than fiction, but the strangest thing about Kelly McLane’s subtle, seductive, at times disturbing imagery is the realization that her visual conjurings are fictions based in fact. Just look around.

McLane combines carefully chosen bits of comedy, irony, and tragedy with odd doses of off-road reality – a couch perched atop a darkened trailer, a house with pictures hung on the exterior walls, a man in a bunny costume by the side of the road, a deer carcass in an empty swimming pool, an excited mutt as likely to lick you hand as bite it off – the kind of stuff Harmony Korine would mortgage his soul for. Until a year or so ago, McLane was one of Los Angeles’s best-kept secrets. But her visibility has increased dramatically after partnering with veteran dealer David McAuliffe, owner of the long-running and highly-respected Angles Gallery, who took a hefty sampling of her work to the recent Armory Show 2000 in Manhattan.

The Armory is a barometer of the American art market. Wall space comes at a premium and McAuliffe might have made a safer investment displaying work by more established artists. But McLane was among a few newcomers the dealer took East, and the gamble paid off. Word of mouth generated a steady flow of collectors interested in McLane, and McAuliffe, who hasn’t yet exhibited her work in L.A. found himself fielding offers from New Yorker galleries. The gallerists will up the ante by showing the work this June in Basel, Switzerland, at the mother of all art fairs.

Still a bit bewildered by her sudden career acceleration, McLane deals with the strangeness of the art world by getting lost in the strangeness of her art; spending long days in a one-car garage studio she shares with her husband, sculptor Jared Pankin, at their home in the Mt. Washington district of L.A.

Christopher Miles: Let’s start at the very beginning

Kelly McLane: I was born in Wenatchee, Washington, and spent my childhood there. Back then it was the apple capital of the world. Now it’s also suppose to be the Prozac capital, and there’ve been some scandals and witch hunts recently, something involving sex and day care. But when I lived there it was all about apple blossom festivals, very middle class.

And your teenage years?

My parents moved, the split, so I was living back and forth between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a town in Northern California called Paradise, and later, Kansas City. I wasn’t doing much other than training horses, which I’d considered as a career, but I wanted to do something else – and I’d always liked art – so I enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute. I paid my way by waiting tables and training horses on the side. Actually, they were polo ponies, so it was good money and I got to travel to wherever the matches were held.

Was that an important time for you as an artist?

I met my husband at the Art Institute. I developed a work ethic and became resourceful and learned to look to my surroundings for possibilities. There were a lot of pig farms in the area. I would make sketches, return to the studio and use to sketches as the basis for big drawings.

And then westward.

Jared moved out to attend graduate school at UCLA, and I followed a few months later and got a job doing hand-painted designs on silk for minimum wage for this guy who was running a clothing factory out of his garage in the Valley. I didn’t see any reason to stick around. Jared and I always had a healthy competition, so if he was doing something, I was going to as well. I applied to UC Davis and went off there for a couple of years, and we saw each other when we could, and then we rendezvoused back in L.A.

Was it a shock returning to L.A.?

I’ve spent most of my life going from one culture shock to the next, but it was a big shock coming to L.A. We rented a loft downtown, and because of the size of the space there was a kind of pressure and ambition to make really big work. I was still learning to paint, so I spent a long time making big, awful paintings. I started looking at classical paintings, and despite having gone to art school and graduate art school, I started copying old masters to figure out how they did the glazing, and that’s how I learned to paint.

Someone asked me to describe your paintings in a nutshell, and I said I thought they were about the strangeness of American life, the backside of what “all-American” is. Was I remotely on the mark?

I think the work is very American, not so much because I consciously look to comment on America, but because I want to make paintings about the oddness of life, and my life and experiences have been American. My own quirks and way of seeing the world affects the images I create, but it’s also about whatever the viewer brings to the experience.

I think they have a quality of very dry, deadpan dark comedy.

The balance point is always moving around, but I feel the images are working when my response is balanced somewhere between feeling happy and sad – sometimes silly, sometimes a bit horrified.

Your paintings are very refined, even elegant, at least in terms of their formal qualities, and yet you’re making lovely, subtle images of things that are rather awful, or, at the very least, troubling.

We’re talking about things that are inseparable. The paintings could be macabre or heavy handed, but that’s how I view things. Awful things don’t always look awful – often they have a strange elegance. I think a lot of our experience is about fading in and out of the beautiful, the comical, the horrible, the extraordinary, and the mundane. I want the paintings to offer an experience to which there is more than one response, so the blank passages can be read as both light, open spaces, or as bleak, empty passages – voids.

Some of the elements in the images seem rather iconic. Do you think of the paintings as functioning symbolically or as allegories?

Different people will see different elements as more iconic than others. It’s a matter of one’s own experience, and in that way I don’t think they can be read as allegories or as symbolic. Most are images people have seen in some variation, or have imagined, but perhaps in different ways. There are stories that run in my head as I’m putting them together, but these are like moments out of a bigger story, and someone else is going to read those moments very differently.

That’s how I really think of them, as moments, and the moments that interest me are the ones with the most potential for response. I’ve made images of people falling in the sky, still alive and strapped to their airplane seats as if they’ve just fallen out of a plane in a catastrophe. That’s a moment that has happened and could happen again, but that few people if any have ever seen, but we can imagine it, so I’ve made it concrete visually. There’s a larger story that extends into the past and future from that particular moment, but the moment itself is so rich-tragic, absurd, comical, curious, and pathetic.

On any given day in L.A., it is a short drive in any direction to the tragic, absurd, the comical, the curious, or the pathetic. Meanwhile, in a studio in Mt. Washington, McLane sifts through the fragments of modern life, painting to painting, moment to moment – without even leaving her garage.