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Matt Leines and Keegan McHargue

Large Dudes
The Wrong Gallery

Matt Leines,
Matt Leines, "Untitled" (2004), ink and watercolor on paper. Courtesy Kathy Grayson.

The large drawings by Matt Leines and Keegan McHargue in the two glass doorways on West 20th Street that are The Wrong Gallery feel something like the geometry of poetry, if there were such a thing. McHargue, a young and rising art star transplanted from the West Coast, falls on the poetic side with his lyrical figuration and decorative abstraction. Leines on the other hand brings a mathematical certainty with his geometric structures that populate the eight-panel drawing. Both artists explore notions of religion in what initially appear to be ambitious doodles.

The reference isn’t in the pejorative sense that both artists have an aimless quality to their mark making, a simplicity that covers space through repetition; the imagery has the feeling of emerging from subconscious activity. McHargue’s pencil drawing, three sheets of paper taped together, is the more lyrical of the two with his Egyptian influenced composition and figures. The space is organized around scale, as his pantheon of characters shift in size, indicating some kind of personal hierarchy. Everything about the drawing is steeped in a kind of polymorphous spirituality. In the center of the drawing, two beautifully drawn women appear like deities. Off to the left, a simple man in a tie is transformed into a mythic creature with talons for feet. In the bottom right of the drawing, an Egyptian bird-headed god looks off to the side. In a tiny section in the lower middle, a tiny cross glows atop what may be a church. The whole composition comes together in the shape of unifying figure, binding the figures and symbols together.

McHargue renders his strange pantheon with a delicate hand. He achieves an impressive range of values and displays a mastery of the medium. The narrative remains elusive as his symbolism turns on its own internal order, despite the presence of familiar, even loaded symbols like the cross. There are passages of remarkable beauty throughout the drawing, but the whole feels conceptually limited, lacking any kind of criticality. The drawing itself, so intensely personal, doesn’t offer many keys to understanding its cryptic iconography.

Leines’s drawing style feels far more methodical and calculated, as does his imagery. The highly detailed patterning that fills the larger forms is meticulous and mechanical. The eight panels divided by a heavy black frame depict a kind of arterial entity growing out of geometric cubes populated by Christ-like figures and a black tiger with yellow stripes. The artery tree is filled with thousands of super highways, as are the geometric structures that act as both architecture and masks. Blood red eyes and lumpy mouths peer out from within the masks, giving the drawing an eerie tone of religious paranoia.

Leines seems to be articulating a critique of the intersection of progress and belief. Unlike McHargue’s benign even hopeful characters, Leines’s figures are abject and repulsive beyond their initial cartoon appearance. There is something disgusting about them, about the odd space, bloodshot eyes, and dazed expressions. There is nothing hopeful or particularly beautiful about any of it. The series as a whole has a monstrous quality that works best if viewed as a critique of idolatry, religious or otherwise.

Viewed together, Leines presents a darker vision of the world where the spiritual is reduced to a kind of numbing sameness, while McHargue’s vision is more humanistic. His figures convey an emotional range that Leines’s lack. While the artists offer highly individual and surreal views of religion and spirituality, they are heavily indebted to the aesthetic of Chris Johanson and Barry McGee and West Coast style. McHargue shares something of Johanson’s playful use of line, while Leines evokes the abject and bizarre characters of McGee’s work. Though not quite a school of art yet, McGee and Johanson represent an extremely influential artistic sub-culture. While art has long been predicated on skillful theft, McHargue and Leines are not merely stealing with this reliquary-like presentation. Hopefully, both artists will continue to define their own by pushing the limits of drawing.


William Powhida


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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