PRINT January 1982


AMERICANS, USUALLY AND GENERALLY, are not very expressive. There is the ubiquitous smile called “cheese” made up for photographic purposes, but most of us are rather dour. There are few generalities that suit this amalgam of human races; Americans are enthusiastic about money, and that’s about it. There are of course regional differences (people smile more in Southern California and laugh more in New York City), but our social customs vary so much from one ghetto to another, and all these communities are so exclusive, that one can hardly write an article of any meaning at all to more than one small section of society. This is why there are thousands of different magazines. Each publication has its own field and within that its own class. Society is organized similarly, although on a grander scale, so that when one mentions the familiar word “Americans” one is really invoking a vast number of utterly different societies.

Expression is a simpler matter. As Jean-Luc Godard said 15 years ago, “If you want to say something, there is only one solution: say it.” In other languages, squeezing an orange is a metaphor for expression, as is forcing steam through ground roast coffee. So is anyone’s sexuality. But the easiest, most accessible, most evanescent, and both most private and most public form of human expression takes place all the time on every face. Although we are capable, computers have calculated, of several hundred facial expressions, all of them are easy for us complex beings to perform. One day, a long time ago, I was reading a little French dictionary I have, and I came across a series of three little drawings of the face labeled “sad,” “calm,” “happy.” I learned something when I realized that this illustrated the word expression. Our vocal function is so developed that it is as easy for us to speak as it is to breathe, but we often betray our real states of mind, not by what we say or even by what we feel, but rather by how we look. Even when we deadpan our way through jokes or confront threats with poker faces, our mien is a movie of what’s in our minds.

Michael McClard is an artist who draws expressions, not people. They are faces that bring out something universal (our interest in each other’s faces) and something specific, an idea applied over the face as expression. It is not a cartoon, because a cartoon parodies expression. Nor is it like a photograph which, as Roland Barthes pointed out in his last book, Camera Lucida, rather creates the objects it memorializes, even if they are not aware of the camera at the moment of capture. The expressions on McClard’s faces are his own; they don’t refer to actual persons and they don’t even become characters in his work. Each is different, an expression on its own. An expression, after all, contains meaning. Although the people in McClard’s pantheon don’t exist, he uses them like puppets or icons to say something.

McClard grew up mainly in Denver, moving around at times because his father was a navy surgeon. Although interested in literature, Balzac for example, he took his ability to draw to the San Francisco Art Institute in the late ’60s. At that time, San Francisco was an island of expression whose artists equally sealed themselves off from minimal repressiveness and Abstract Expressionism. At a time when most other art contexts proscribed meaning as completely as possible, San Francisco had something to say which, except for some great music, never got exported. McClard was interested in the theatrical (not, however, in professional theater) and so he began making sets, a big paper airplane, some floor pieces. Arriving in New York in 1973 he sniffed the then-new performance art movement and began writing plays in which he played all the parts, and made, among other sets, a real-sized cardboard car. Later he began making large paintings-with-objects related to circuses. But his drawing sense never left him.

Because I have seen some drawings by McClard that remind me of the drawings of Constantin Guys (immortalized by Baudelaire in his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life”) I can tell that McClard is an authentic drawer, probably from babyhood. In his paintings of faces, 26 of which were exhibited in New York in October together with other works, the drawing is done in fresh plaster, and sometimes includes an actual piece of paper pressed over the plaster to make a skinlike skin. The smoothness is required for younger faces, as yet unscarred by the experiences of life which, in time, will mark them even in repose. Here is a list of the names McClard put to the faces in the order in which they happened to be exhibited: Aborigine, Ahab, Queequeg, Ishmael, Earth, Water, Air, Fire, Medusa, No Man, Someone, Somebody, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Victim of the Great Artiste, Roman Youth, Egyptian Woman, Martian Jesus, Fundamentalist, Poor Devil, Earth Jesus, Blue Nose, God, Young Saturn, Equation, The Wolf.

A few are only slightly facial, but they’re all expressionistic. They say something, they attract the eye as other faces do, they offer us a lesson in how to live without doing our living for us, and they look like people do at fleet moments when their faces become the icon of meaning and we can see just what it is.

Most of the faces are primitive, rather aboriginal things, like the four elements and three of the four elements in Melville’s masterpiece (the tail of the whale is visible behind Queequeg). The plaster in all of these is rather rough with often rather violent, strong colors afforded by using straight powdered pigment. They are gestural drawings made in a heavy material—plaster on steel mesh—and painted afterwards. The names, in most cases, come later, too. Although the names are appropriate and never arbitrary or whimsical like the names of abstract paintings, the paintings, like real expressions, communicate without a name. There is one, though, that deserves an explanation.

Victim of the Great Artiste is a weird visage with scrambled features, eyes askew, an unhealthy complexion. It looks cubist. McClard is one of few people who know what the name of the plane that delivered atom bomb #2 over Nagasaki was. The name of the plane that bore the first bomb to Hiroshima is well-known; the Enola Gay, named after the mother of the pilot. The name of the other plane was Great Artiste, no one knows why. McClard’s drawing is at once a comment on early modern art and a rescue operation, for a small section of society, of an aspect of military nomenclature—the idea of a great artist as a bomber.

Drawings in my view are occasional. Although he sometimes sketches, McClard doesn’t do the face paintings from sketches. He draws them in the quickly setting plaster. The plaster is perhaps an inch or more thick and although fragile on the surface, it is somewhat resilient and difficult to crack. It records an intelligence intent on meaning, deft of gesture and rather angry. The anger is charmingly sublimated into expression. The faces are bright, hard, rough (or smooth), and present. Some of them could be portraits, but aren’t. One of the trios, entitled No Man, Somebody, and Someone, shows, in the middle, a snapshotlike portrait of somebody who is somebody. The frame, really part of the plaster drawing, is gilded and the guy is wearing a tie. On the left there is a soldier in jungle camouflage and on the right an American native in warpaint. Such juxtapositions carry strong meanings into an art that has been dominated for years by pure self-reflexivity, the qualities of brushstrokes, and concepts. One sees here the beginnings of an American expressionism that sends its signals out, like any face, for all the world to register, compute, and comprehend.

Ted Castle is a free-lance writer who lives in New York.