Critics’ Picks

Jeff McMillan, Cautionary Tale, 2005, oil on found painting, 21 5/8 x 15".

Jeff McMillan, Cautionary Tale, 2005, oil on found painting, 21 5/8 x 15".


Jeff McMillan

Christine König Galerie
Schleifmühlgasse 1A
September 5–October 4, 2008

Jeff McMillan is not a typical painter. In many ways, he is not a painter at all. For his first solo exhibition in Austria, the US-born, London-based artist presents a series of small-scale figurative paintings found in thrift stores and antiques markets around the world that he has dipped, literally, into a pool of oil paint. What persuades about this simple act is the precision with which the artist has decided to stop immersing the canvases in his large basins filled with bright pigment. In each painting, a wall of intense color rises or drops (depending on the orientation) to a quarter, a half, or more of the height of the picture. Strategically, it stops at an invisible line within the image, covering up details and transfiguring parts of a genre scene, landscape, or portrait, thus overturning its mysterious origin and inscribing a new meaning in it. The existing subject matter, thus transfigured, vacillates, and the hierarchy between layers of paint, as well as foreground and background, is confused. Viewers become acutely aware of how the interrelation of these characteristics governs space in images. Sometimes, the color scrupulously invades the image, as in the case of Not Fade Away, 2008, a portrait of an old man, hung upside down and covered by a coat of gray paint that falls two-thirds of the way down the canvas’s surface to the figure’s eyebrows. This abstract, opaque stain hides the subject from the viewer yet mercilessly reveals his balding, aging head. Contrarily, in Cautionary Tale, 2005, the artist leaves most of the existing image unspoiled, apart from a band of green color concealing one eye of a man sitting at a kitchen table who, in fear, turns his cutlery into weapons as a sign of self-defense.

McMillan’s approach to this type of intervention, which has a long history, is rather subtle, given that his layering technique, as ruthless as it may appear, manages nevertheless to preserve the intimacy and virtuosic brushwork of the originals, as in The Curse, 2004, or enhance the warm tones of the original patina, as in The Seducer, 2005. Indirectly questioning the notion of reproduction and artistic labor through the most economical yet significant gesture, McMillan is able to turn what appears to be a cosmetic disruption into an intelligent theoretical operation.