Los Angeles

Ann McCoy

Margo Leavin Gallery

At first glance, Ann McCoy’s gossamer visions of underwater scenery suggest the artist as a maker of metaphors, a sea-dreamer musing on pearls and eyes and finny droves of the whale-road, rather than a scientist of the deep, some Beebe in a bathysphere. McCoy has described her drawings as “outer landscapes . . . seen through the eyes of an inner part of one’s being.” Along with Jungians and some Surrealists, she perceives affinities between the ocean depths, the nocturnal world of dreams, and the dark abyss of the human unconscious. Her titles—e.g. Le Pays des Rêves, Dream Reef, Nuit de Feu/The Red Sea—heighten the phantasmagorical tone of her work. Nevertheless, McCoy’s “Underwater Drawings” of the past few years are in fact founded on oceanographic research. The artist takes her imagery from photographs of specific sites, such as The Great Barrier Reef; she writes of nature as her “basic inspiration” and claims for herself a geographically varied range of diving experiences. Moreover, on further observation, the drawings themselves seem as much informed by a naturalist’s obsession with zoological detail as they are characterized by a poetizing sensibility.

Beyond her fusion of science and poetry, McCoy’s style is marked by other seeming incongruities. The five major works of the current show, for instance, combine ambitious scale (the largest work is 13 feet wide) with an exquisitely detailed form of imagery. Then, too, by executing her huge underwater scenes in colored pencils on acrylic-coated paper, McCoy joins a grandiose vision to conspicuously humble means. Unlike an accompanying group of small works, the large drawings are all mounted on canvas; their edges are bound, sewn, and furnished with metal eyelets—a utilitarian arrangement which permits the works to be pinned easily to the wall without benefit of frame. The method is in keeping with the casual California style, but it also evokes a world of practical sea-borne fabrics: tarpaulin, sailcloth, duffel.

If McCoy’s subject matter is nature’s lavish display of submarine vivacity, and, more specifically, the profusion of animal and vegetable life surrounding coral reefs, her depiction of that underwater zoo cum jungle exceeds even nature’s prodigality. She crowds the lower two-thirds of her picture plane with swarming life—a teeming fantasy of ocean creatures like sea anemones, brain coral, sea fans and feathers, hydra, ivory bushes, octopi, and who knows what else of a calcareous, polypoid or spongy character. The realistic shape and specifics of these organisms suggest their photographic source, but just as McCoy has swelled the population of the ocean floor to a tenement density, she superimposes layers of decorative microscopic detail to enrich the basic forms recorded by the camera.

Another decorative strategy, somewhat precious and less satisfactory, is the scattering of scallop shells, sea stars, and butterflies over the surface of the drawings. It may be that these appliquéd forms are a sign of the artist’s discomfort with the illusionism of her conventionally shaded, ocean-miming space, and that these devices are meant as an artifice-affirming gesture. Instead, they trivialize. McCoy’s ambiguous attitude towards spatial structure also manifests itself regularly at the edges of her drawings, and border points are unresolved areas of difficulty. In the large works, the artist frequently resorts to a mock, Seurat-like inner frame, but with characteristic equivocation, she intermittently dematerializes this form, sporadically bringing it in and out of focus, as if it were eaten away like water-worn driftwood.

There is no such uncertainty in McCoy’s use of color or in her pencil technique. Though underwater scenery is often photographed as an ostentatious spectacle of brilliant Ektachrome, McCoy’s version of oceanic abundance is wan and evanescent, her pale pastel forms appareled, as it were, in Wordsworth’s celestial light. A gauzy hint of argentine glimmer is indeed one of the artist’s chief effects; it grows out of the wax sheen of her pallid pencil marks, a by-product of her omnipresent hatching technique. McCoy’s closely spaced, gently stroked pencil work seems unremarkable enough in itself. Yet by means of that feathery embroidery, the artist is able to create a unifying, if fragile, overall surface texture. She also uses her stroking pencil to turn “inner space” (as depthmen call it) into a trope for introspective travel—not to mention her most alarming trick of all, a knack for turning nature’s firm biomorphs into elusive phantoms, mysterious shadows of their former selves.

Nancy Marmer