On ViewMassey Klein Gallery
May 7 – June 19, 2021
The feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue—a state between knowing and not-knowing, remembering and forgetting—takes visual form in the paintings that make up Kate McQuillen’s exhibition Wave Amnesia. Here, something always seems to be emerging or dissolving. Through a layering process of screenprinting and manipulation, McQuillen capitalizes on “mistakes” usually avoided by screen printers: moiré patterns from misregistration; “kiss marks” from tearing the screen away from viscous paints; and waves of uneven densities created by applying uneven pressure to the squeegee she uses to print her images. Perfectly sited in the narrow spaces of Massey Klein Gallery, these paintings on panel take up our field of vision and push our own bodies into their liminal spaces, offering us a viscerally felt meditation on the fallibility of memory.
The two human-sized panels in Tip of Tongue (2021) are doors to a world of blinding yellow light. (McQuillen’s smooth, hyper-matte surfaces physically reflect more light than a typical gessoed canvas.) In one panel, ghostly gestural marks orbit around a nucleus that has long since decayed. Similar, but more faded, orbital paths are found in the second panel, and other echoes appear throughout the picture, such as a moiré pattern in the second panel duplicated in negative in an upper corner of the first. McQuillen screens a color, then “paints” by wiping up the color with a sponge, and then applies another screen color. All of this is done on an absorbent ground, almost akin to fresco, allowing the artist to create highly expressive marks with no impasto. Compounded with the surreal light reflected from McQuillen’s surfaces, the inexplicable flatness of the gestural passages causes us to question whether we are observing a physical painting or lost in some kind of illusory dream state. The margins of the painting give us no clue: the bottom of the composition, for example, dissolves away into vertical snow-capped brushstrokes, creating a hazy periphery that divorces the action within the painting from any external context.
McQuillen takes the opposite approach in Amnesia Vu (2021) by pushing the action to the periphery. Vertical gray forms made by plunking the hard edge of her squeegee onto the panel leave mechanical geometries bleeding with mini-Rorschach abstractions. These marks on both the left and right borders gently hold us within a pictorial space that is open and feels blank, like a placeholder for a memory that is not where it should be. As we look from those edges, we are put in mind of a Zen priest, Choka, who is found on the margin of an Edo period hanging scroll by Sōtatsu at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Choka stares into a void that is anything but empty as it—in both McQuillen’s and Sōtatsu’s paintings—circulates energy, power, warmth. As we look at the hyper-smooth panel of Amnesia Vu we paradoxically perceive velvety textures surfacing on the white expanses.
McQuillen’s juxtaposition of expressive painterly forms or visually tactile textures and a literal hyper-flat surface in Tip of Tongue and Amnesia Vu leaves us unable to trust the usual congruence of our haptic and visual senses. In Borderlands (2020) and Forgetless (2020), McQuillen, who in a conversation with me described “the picture plane as a portal and the artist as a prankster,” leaves us spatially dislocated. The haunting vertical stripes of Borderlands deny us entry into a suggested landscape beyond them, so we remain on the surface, entangled in reticulations and interference patterns created by the artist’s silkscreens. Illumination peeks through those patterns like the laces of light cast on a murky pond floor by surface refractions. The painting’s margins reveal traces of vibrant purple, yellow, cyan, and orange, primordial layers which have now all irreversibly merged into each other, making their record of the past as inaccessible as the faint landscape in the background or a word on the tip of the tongue. In Forgetless, luminous yellow and pale orange sunlight sets on a dark marsh of moss green and violet earth. But sinking even further, moiré patterns appear. These pulsating dots in grid formation disrupt the illusion of naturalistic space and generate their own sense of volume—rhythmically advancing and receding—as they overtake the landscape with the implacability of an invasive species.
But the true antagonist is this exhibition is not an outside invader. The failure of memory materialized in Wave Amnesia happens within our imperfect, organic brains. We often rely on photographs as our immutable surrogate memories and, indeed, many of McQuillen’s works elicit a sense of the photographic—not the photograph as an image, however, but as a mutable material. In The Frothies (2021), luminous puddles of paint read like darkroom chemicals spilt and exposed on Cibachrome paper, as do the edges of Six in Dog Years (2021), whose proportions recall a four by five negative. The sinuous slices of light that traverse this surface look like meandering lines drawn on film with a flashlight while the camera’s shutter remains open. In a poignant metaphor for the fallibility of memory and the human brain, all the paintings in the exhibition are like photographs that have been wiped away with McQuillen’s squeegee. We are left only with remnants of the materials once used to create a record that can no longer be remembered.