New York

Bruce McLean

Artists Space Exhibitions

It is difficult in the case of Bruce McLean to separate “artist” from “work,” since the latter is so much involved with performance and gesture—not the “expressionistic” gesture (although McLean is currently making use of this), but geste in the Brechtian sense. McLean has always cast himself in the role of an iconoclastic brigand-part terrorist, part court jester with a touch of the dandy; at least since his work with “Nice Style: The First Pose Band,” 1971–75, this ebullient, quick-witted persona has never ceased to fire sallies wherever it finds the art world in flagrante delicto. Nor, it should be added, is McLean ever short of ammunition. His subject, or target, has been the institution of art: not only its false icons, myths, and vapid reasoning, but also the social milieu itself, with its posturing and affectations, its pomposity and hypocrisy. A microcosm, in short, of the world at large. In this respect, his work has much in common with the Anglo-Celtic tradition of the satirical cartoon and burlesque theater.

McLean is primarily a sculptor, but one who can appropriate all manner of objects, including himself, as props. These props themselves become gestures, so that the entire work, irrespective of its medium, is a form of performance. The artist parries art-world artfulness with his own, but his shows a virtuosity stemming from a facility with and understanding of materials and their significance, and a thorough knowledge of the history and language of representation. McLean can turn the most seemingly banal idea or prop into the signifier of an attitude to the world. A teacup can stand for the fatuousness of so much of human exchange, and a purse, as in the present collection of paintings, for wanton consumerism: clichés laid bare through an art of the absurd. And McLean’s virtuosity with his materials means a capacity to simulate a number of art “styles”; indeed, his dexterity with the brush exceeds that of most serious so-called expressionists.

Nevertheless, McLean’s foray into the language of neo-Expressionist painting, which began to emerge publicly about five years ago, is inscribed with ambiguity. Originating as rapidly executed notations for his performances, sprinkled with visual and verbal puns, these works have gradually become divorced from performance to exist in their own right. However, it may be that only their relationship to the context of the work as a whole redeems them from wholesale incorporation into the framework of neo-Expressionism proper. The first fully fledged paintings emerged from the artist’s residency under the DAAD program in Berlin; these large images, with their loose calligraphic drawing, typically appear as parodies of the “scene” he found himself in, and are populated with inscriptions, slogans, posturing figures, and objects referring to the attitudinizing of expressionism, its current exponents, and the investments of the collectors and dealers who support them. Although these paintings and their related performances are successful as burlesque critiques of the art world, they nevertheless incorporate an internal language addressing a knowing audience. Their subtleties remain inaccessible to those outside this framework.

The artist is obviously aware of this problem. His recent body of paintings, “Going for Gucci,” takes a more generalized view of human idiosyncrasy, aiming at the vacuous materialism of TV culture and its seduction by style and wealth (for which Gucci socks and purses become principal actors), and by social position. To indicate the latter McLean uses one of his favorite props, the ladder. The repertoire of characters—fashion-conscious female nudes balancing moneybags (their sense) on their heads, and complacent pipe-smoking men, for instance—are caricatures, but they are drawn with affection and humanism. McLean’s role as commentator on the human comedy is a voyeuristic one, allowing him distance from the autobiographical connotations of expressionism and the “presence” signified by the brushstroke. Through his relation to subject matter McLean is just able to balance the language of expressionism with its critique, to parody what has itself become a parody of human emotion.

Jean Fisher