May 4th, 1995

A landscape artist moves to cyberspace

By Nancy Stapen
Followers of the painter John McNamara are in for a surprise when they visit his show at the Miller Block Gallery. Long gone are the Galleries painterly abstractions that earned McNamara a central role in the Boston art scene of the early ‘8Os.

Instead, McNamara’s current body of work is a series of geometric, compartmentalized paintings that incorporate a cornucopia of cul­tural and personal symbols. McNamara is merg­ing the future-is-now world of cyberspace with a host of ideas and experiences, rang­ing from new fatherhood and a re­cently minted California identity (McNamara moved to San Francisco three years ago) to the demise of na­ture, art historical issues and the in­terior world of the painter.

Hardly the stuff of an artist avoiding contemporary life and cul­ture. But in the last decade McNa­mara has been criticized for wafting with the winds of fashion. That sort of critique restricts painters to a sin­gle mode — one that’s nice, neat and easily categorized. But it discounts the evolutionary process of trial and error that painting is all about. And despite their different look, these paintings are consistent with McNa­mara’s ongoing concerns. He’s al­ways been a landscape painter, his palette here holds the same brilliant hues he’s used for well over a dec­ade, and he continues to explore interior and exterior space. So too, many of the symbols here — the boul­der-like cave/hut, the shield form —are McNamara’s signature shapes.

The notion of the computer sup­planting nature is now uppermost, and California light and space have crept into the painting. New high and low techniques are incorporated, including photographic monoprint­ing of computer-generated images, as well as patterning via rubber stamps. Several of the works con­trast rectangular expanses of cool, near monochrome light-toned paint, signifying the computer screen, with symbols representing nature, paint­ing and gestation. Some are in dip­tych form, as in “The Brand”; in oth­ers the screen is less prominent, as in “Are Some Agendas More Impor­tant than Others?” — a comment on the artworld’s enigmatic privileging of one artist or mode over another.

“Landscape” is a key work. In it a large horizontal rectangle (the computer-like screen) of cool pink/blue/yellow (that California light) extends over a “menu” of sym­bols, among them a female fertility figure, an agonized male sun, a clump of computer chips, a chart of black and white tonalities, and a miniature quadrant depicting the four seasons, the latter painted with the Monet-like fluidity formerly em­blematic of McNamara himself. The image suggests the displacement of nature by the computer, which has virtually become the landscape; in the process it also replaces the tradition of landscape painting. But the ethereal quality McNamara lends to the screen’s sur­face conveys more than hand wring­ing over paradise lost; it suggests the computer offers it own possibili­ties for spiritual transcendence.

Seton Smith, a young photogra­pher living in Paris who has recently attracted considerable attention, is showing for the first time in Boston at the Barbara Krakow Gallery. Boston’s Old World charm makes this city a natural for Smith, who photographs fragments of luxurious interiors and gardens, usually French chateaux, but here also in­cluding four images shot inside the Gardner Museum (but, like the rest of the works, the locale is not identi­fied). Smith’s details of sumptuous rooms are blown up into large, blur­ry images mounted on plexiglass, combining the painterly beauty of 19th-century photography with a high-tech veneer.

These are highly theatrical works. Not overtly political, they are more like lamentations on the man­made theatricality of overwrought interiors and too-manicured gar­dens. Both are seen as desecrations, the one of the great art of architec­ture, the other of the irrational force of nature. Smith suggests that, tamed by the imposition of formal­ized, conventional design, both archi­tecture and nature lose their ability to ennoble the spirit.

With their plexiglass, object-like format, the images also comment on museum displays, where placement in vitrines confers instant impor­tance on objects. An image from the Gardner of the corner of a gilded case is titled simply “Plexi Box.” Smith also juxtaposes Western and Eastern motifs, further suggesting that the arbiters of culture — cura­tors, decorators, landscape artists and the like — deprive objects of the cultural context that gives them meaning. In one of these “mixed metaphor” images, an elegant chan­delier is juxtaposed with a 19th-cen­tury-type fellow, who reclines lan­guorously on a couch embellished with Chinese inlays, while a crucifix and Madonna hang on the wall above him. 

Smith has a love-hate relation­ship with her subject. The intellectu­al thrust of the work is at odds with its romantic allure. Smith’s objects may be unmoored from their cultur­al context, but her artful, Degas-like cropping, nostalgic evocations of a lost time, and light-suffused, luxuri­ous world nevertheless seduces with its beauty.

Another sort of theatricality per­vades New York photographer Rhona Bitner’s small but potent im­ages of circus performers, on view at the Howard Yezerski Gallery.

Bitner isolates her subjects, who are brightly illuminated by colored spotlights, in a black spatial void. They acquire an uncanny presence, like beings at once artificial yet hu­man. In several sharp-focus works they contort their bodies into seem­ingly impossible postures, as when a woman hangs upside down, left wrist and right ankle hooked into suspend­ed rings, body convoluted into a square. Bitner combines her sub­jects’ perfectionism and exhibition­ism with the viewer’s role as voyeur. Conveyed within a modernist tradi­tion of right-angled purity, it effects an odd and intriguing mix.

Odder still are the blurry photos that catch performers in mid-motion. In one particularly effective image, an acrobat leaps forward, his arms extending into shadowy green wing­like forms, emerging like a demon from the unknowm

Unlike so much of the photogra­phy-of-deviance currently in vogue, Bitner’s images have an authentic edge. An element of self portrait hovers in the works; one senses Bitner’s compulsion matches that of her subjects. She’s neither a Diane Arbus nor a Nan Goldin wannabe, but an image-maker in a weird zone somewhere between the Mon­drianesque and Bosch/Goya tradi­tions. Both are mined to convey the dark, impenetrable nature of the hu­man psyche.