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Memphis Flyer Someday Comics

By Cory Dugan

AUGUST 18, 1997:  Colin McLain's name comes up in an article by Fredric Koeppel in the recently published 10th-anniversary issue of Number:, the area's visual-arts periodical. Legitimately deploring the dismal state of art criticism in the local press, Koeppel asks how talented young artists -- he uses McLain as an example -- will "know that they will receive the kind of support that encourages and sustains creative work?"

Well, I'm not sure what it takes to encourage Colin McLain, but I would think that a Rotary Ambassador Scholarship for a year of study in Florence and a solo exhibit at Ledbetter Lusk Gallery that is (at this writing) two paintings shy of sold-out would be considerably more sustaining than anything some blowhard critic might say. Yet blow I will, for it is my lonely (and lowly) calling to do so.

I don't usually comment on sales, as I did in the previous paragraph. How well an artist's work sells has little or nothing to do with its merit as art. In fact, I only noticed the rampant sales at McLain's show because the two best paintings were the ones left unsold. That and I couldn't figure out the titles of the paintings because Ledbetter Lusk subscribes to the viewer-unfriendly trend of identifying art with numbers instead of titles, and the damn red dots obscured all the numbers on the sheet which supposedly helps one match number to painting to title to price. Don't galleries think titles matter? Sometimes they're integral to the piece. And walking across the gallery to look at a sheet of paper can easily ruin what is meant to be a quick, simple synaptic word-image response.

Colin McLain's titles, for example, often say a lot about his paintings. If his paintings were cartoons -- which they are -- his titles would be the captions. Which they are.

McLain paints big sloppy comics; the figures in his paintings -- all of them -- look disturbingly like the Nickelodeon cartoon character Doug. The figures are placed in situations that leave them at best dim-wittedly perplexed, at worst in comic-book peril -- endangered by a motley collection of cooking utensils, buckets, bear traps, electric fans, chain saws, trophies, and water hoses. In Bi-Partisan, opposing camps of identical figures are unable even to connect an extension cord. In the Drink poses our heroes in a canvas filling up with water from a dangling garden hose; their misguided solution is to cut the hose above water level. In Candidates, four suits of clothes drape lifelessly on headless mannequins, knee-deep in rising water.

It's all clever, but it's also obvious and bordering on one-dimensional. Like any one-panel cartoon, no matter how glib the punch line, it eventually falls flat after repeated viewings. Not that jokes are verboten in high art; far from it. What, after all, is Duchamp but visual stand-up? Elle a chaud au cul loses its vulgar, punning effect almost immediately -- but its underlying statement about art (and not the temperature of Mona's nether regions) makes it serious in spite of itself.

Fredric Koeppel may worry about Colin McLain's critical sustenance, but I worry more about Colin McLain's paintings sustaining the continued interest of his patrons. McLain doesn't even paint very well. His color ranges from arbitrary to accidental. Form and line are foreign to his compositional vocabulary. His brush work is thoughtless and undisciplined. The surfaces of his paintings vary from dead flat to glazed doughnut.

So. Why am I so charmed?

Because underneath the trendy anti-art posturings, there's a serious anti-artist blossoming. One who will learn to think while he does something thoughtless. One who is learning to paint (evidenced by In the Drink and Trophy, the unsold paintings) as he explores better ways to make paint look, well, badly painted. One who will learn to make temporary whims into lasting statements.

McLain's paintings offer a welcome and refreshing combination of wit, irreverence, and good-natured anarchy that is in short supply in the local art-gallery quagmire. His work is yet immature, rushed in both execution and conception. But that is part of its charm and part of its fun. And it's big (in a gallery which can actually showcase large work). And it shows more youthful promise than these tired bifocular eyes have seen in a long while.

BACK TO FREDRIC KOEPPEL. IT was good to read his words again, even in Number:. For those who may be new to the game and only know Mr. Koeppel from his wine, food, and book reviews in The Commercial Appeal, he was also the 50-cent daily's art critic from 1987 to 1994, before they decided that art criticism was déclassé and discontinued it in favor of the rare but vapid, politically correct (but altogether incorrect) meanderings that now pass for art writing in the CA. Koeppel's voice is sorely missed.

Koeppel once wrote that it would take an alternate universe for him and me to agree. The years have apparently brought our separate galaxies closer. Because I agree with his Number: article, "Dateline Memphis."

The basis of the article is a history of the contemporary visual arts in Memphis since 1987 -- recounting past failures and predicting future ones. He also points a welcome and well-aimed barb at that most ass-backward of Memphis institutions, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Anything-But-Art. Duck decoys and tom-joolery.

The final analysis, according to Koeppel, is that the state of art in Memphis is pretty stagnant.

In fact, it's worse than it was 10 years ago -- because, as Koeppel correctly assesses, the powers that publish in Memphis have turned a blind eye. Without the input of the daily newspaper, the art reviews that appear here and elsewhere rather irregularly become something of a last word. Even if I really was right all the time -- which, of course, I am -- that's wrong.

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