New York

Ed McGowin

Lolas-Jackson Gallery

“Inscape” is the term Ed McGowin uses to describe his brand of visual story-telling. The term encompasses both his three-dimensional sculptures and his two-dimensional wall reliefs. The sculptures, such as the artist’s monument to William Faulkner in Mississippi, are a strange marriage of architecture and stage design whereby neo-Modernist structures are punctuated by windows and/or peepholes looking into sets which tellingly elaborate on a subject (the Faulkner piece is a tableau meditation on As I Lay Dying). The wall reliefs are brilliantly orchestrated explosions of right-angled fragments, wherein occasional Plexiglas windows are framed by the flyaway geometry of the whole.

The wall reliefs, all that was shown here, reveal themselves all at once, with literal story angles shooting off into space in a cognitive burst that implies narrative while simultaneously refusing to conform to narrative conventions. Everything—past, present, future—is revealed at once; like unreliable witnesses, we are left to piece it all together in whatever way best suits our emotional needs and narrative inclinations. Each Inscape honors the rules of a specific genre—assumes an individual voice. The story of a robbery, for example, with its mixture of slick commercial illustration, verité color photographs, crossword-puzzle edges, and over-scaled handgun, mimics the prosaically tough “just the facts, ma’am” style of Dragnet.

Altogether different is McGowin’s depiction of a dog’s rescue of a drowning man, which captures the klutzy earnestness of a short story in Boy’s Life magazine. The dog (a hunky Labrador retriever) appears twice: once painted in an individually framed unit, bobbing through rough water clutching an inner tube in its mouth; and again, painted in romantic profile at the water’s edge, on the positive/negative checkerboard construction that makes up this Inscape’s central, largest section. In a framed unit on the piece’s lower-left end a goofy, crudely modeled relief of the rescued swimmer emerges from a painted sea with sculpted droplets of water that cling like leeches. The “back from the edge of the grave” sentiment of the piece is vigorously undercut by this representation, which manages to evoke both the risen Lazarus and the hideously revived son of “The Monkey’s Paw.”

This duality is one of McGowin’s real strengths insofar as he distills his narratives down to the selective, split-screen immediacy of memory while playing sophisticated games with constructivist composition, classic Minimalist materials (and finish), highway-sign formats, and laconically vernacular subject matter. It is the style of the telling, not the story, that makes McGowin’s work so memorable; the stories are as forgettable as the most anonymous tabloid filler. What fixes them in one’s memory is the flair with which they are constructed—the way prosaic depictions of a Lotto winner or the recipient of a giftwrapped ring refer to cultural placement and social aspirations with a nuance that moves gracefully from anecdote to parable.

Richard Flood