Tom McGlynn: At Present at Rick Wester Fine Art

by Elizabeth Johnson


Tom McGlynn, Decal 305, acrylic on birch panel, signed, titled and dated on verso, 48 x 48 inches, RWFA 12942, photo courtesy of Rick Wester Fine Art

Manhattan restaurants and galleries are closed, you can park anywhere in Chelsea. Rick Wester Fine Art has opened Tom McGlynn’s exhibit, At Present, and Wester and I are wearing masks and sitting far apart.

Like most gallerists enduring Covid-19, he isn’t planning much further ahead than after this show closes September nineteenth. It opened in late February, and I recall the room packed with gabbing people. Wester had participated in Volta but now will probably sit out fairs. He uses ZOOM a lot, and despite feeling that social media “preaches to the already converted,” he’ll edit McGlynn’s talk, post on Instagram, and repost it with a series of artist interviews on YouTube. Lately, he says, Instagram and other social media don’t seem to make any difference. Wester is committed to running his own gallery, to being “a witness to growing artists, problem solving, getting work up on the walls and helping artists get to the next stage.” He doesn’t have extensive staff, yet he represents twenty-eight artists. He managed blue chip photography departments at Christie’s and Gagosian, and feels that random, secondary market niches are doing well here and there, but auction results do not a good general market make. The future of art business? One big Maybe.

Wester promotes art that uses current culture to create context; to name a few, Marcos Ramírez (“ERRE”) and David Taylor’s DeLIMITations that resurveys the 1821 border between Mexico and the United States, publicizing American land theft; Ima Mfon’s stripped down portraits of Nigerian individuals that recoups Nigerian identity; and Donna Ruff’s altered newspapers and historical texts that denounce current injustices. Wester’s taste tends toward work that advances egalitarianism.

Which brings us back to McGlynn and At Present. His late-formalist, under-determined paintings temper living in an anxious, hyper-politicized country, as they mock power and undermine the status quo. The show resets associations between specific colors and specific brands, subverting the social order and capital that indoctrinate through aesthetics.

Three paintings in a series, Control Group 3, Control Group 2 and Decal 305, gel as a mechanism for reducing information and governing the viewer, presupposing paintings and combinations of paintings to come. His rectangles jostling for position are often compared to redacted text boxes or computer windows, and he describes them as “generic things for themselves, colors for themselves that are contained by an insubstantial background.” Unlike Mark Rothko’s similarly contained or adjacent forms, these paintings amplify the reciprocal relationship between indeterminate rectangles; McGlynn’s purposefully empty and indifferent compositions hold inert, nameless forms. He seems disinterested in what is lost, because there is no trace of things that were erased. His work is neither mournful nor celebratory. His rectangles are place holders for fleeting, unformed, or unconscious ideas, for desires and feelings that would evaporate were they more firmly fixed in place; being ubiquitous, unremarkable, or peripheral determines that they can only be described in terms of the group they are part of: they are joiners, collaborators, part of the crowd. In a deafening world filled with self-involved people, the paintings seem hospitably tuned to modest terms, and community.

Control Group 3 and Control Group 2 share pale backgrounds and a similar rhythm of long to short and fat to thin rectangles. Having a sky blue background and three stacked oblong rectangles, Decal 305 deviates from the first two. Viewing the rest of the exhibit and pondering how McGlynn divides set from subset and color from muted color, I observe that color and form change incrementally, preserving inclusiveness; thus, recent paintings that do not create rhythm or hang well together would be an exception. I revisit the trio and realize that they progress pleasingly as a duo playing off a different, final statement. The set orders color and form uniformly, balancing sum effects inside and outside of boundaries. Each painting is an equation that describes only itself, casually echoing others; thus, this progression feels eternally fresh, because it compels me to imagine numberless possibilities that won’t need to be painted. Though McGlynn is working according to a pattern, the exhibit remains restlessly open-ended; it gathers energy and speed by grouping and regrouping sets of rectangles that respect only one limit: each halts at individuation.

Along with painting and photography, McGlynn writes short poems that “break apart syntax” à la Gertrude Stein. He offers bite-sized phrases that carry meaning and turn the reader loose to navigate similarly weighted fragments. Color for itself, shape for itself, and words for themselves limit a practice extremely, but limits can also free. In this case, they might cause people to scrutinize the sharp or cloying tools that are used to manipulate them. McGlynn remembers a viewer who swore they had been in a particular mall that he photographed, and though the person was mistaken, he was thrilled that the feeling of “mallness” communicated itself clearly and emotionally. Seeing the work through the viewer’s point of view pulls McGlynn up and away, like an overhead shot in a film before “The End.” I experience At Present as soft and welcoming because every rectangle and edge is identically, resolutely defined. Being challenged by the work and then growing accustomed to its compartmentalizing bestowed a sense of standing with the artist and being baffled with him at the overwhelming number of ways to be interconnected yet independent. Right now we are still taking inventory, and there is no pressing reason to proceed to complete sentences.

Which term is

Which term is
Marginally sharper
Yet not distinguished

These here are
The only pictures
Taken from today

There are many copies
But I’m tempted to
Follow the brand which
Comes to mind first

(Tom McGlynn, “Which term is”)

[Tom McGlynn: At Present runs at Rick Wester Fine Art in New York City until further notice.]

[About the author: Elizabeth Johnson is an artist and writer.]