Robert McNealy

S. L. Simpson Gallery

Robert McNealy’s installations can seem like junkyard inventories. Each is an odd assortment of rough-looking objects plunked down on the gallery floor. McNealy’s anthropology background—before he started making sculpture he did postgraduate work in anthropology, going on a dig in Central America—accounts for the work’s fundamental fragmentariness. Out of his concatenations of broken, found, and remade images and objects McNealy attempts to trace the outlines of the dismembered superstructure of a culture.

This fragmentariness links the work with much recent British sculpture. But unlike, for instance, Tony Cragg’s fragmented pieces, McNealy’s installations never cohere around an implicit ideal form. There’s no link with a classical continuity, nothing to back up the work with a familiar and integral esthetic. McNealy settles for fragmentation as an inescapable cultural condition.

His installation here, consisting of two untitled works, began in a storefront window area. McNealy painted his own figure on a piece of acetate stuck to the window; the figure stooped toward a pile of rubble that stretched up onto the wall, where it ended with a heavily framed image of a paleolithic jawbone. The space was packed with everything from bits of building brick and roadway concrete to models of mathematical polygons and tiny sculptural maquettes—one of a painted Tower of Babel, others of specific forms used in earlier sculptures. McNealy added psychological consequence to this display—the fragments appeared to be attempting to escape from the figure; in doing so they broke free of gravity and stretched for the wall.

In the second installation, McNealy addressed a broader cultural context, presenting a miniaturized city skyline of wood and encaustic buildings pushed tight against white plaster forms that were sometimes biomorphic, sometimes industrial in their derivation. Here McNealy seemed to propose a dialectic between nature and culture, between urban crush and the open-endedness of genetic and mathematical variation. Enclosed by a ternplelike structure that was decorated inside on the ceiling with stars, moons, and planets, the piece was like a cosmology Nearby was a book of large drawings that recorded subjects ranging from plants and mathematical forms to images of corporate executives, crowd scenes, violence, and death and burial images, all taken from newspapers. This inventory of images provided the piece with a human scale, and a cultural and historical context, which were otherwise only implied.

The ideas of the self-portrait and the cosmology served as conceptual containers for the individual objects McNealy assembled here. But of course each is itself a fragment of a larger conceptual entity: the cosmology, a way of thinking the world; the self-portrait, a way of being in it (and of thinking the self). In a similar manner, the dense look of the gallery piece turned it into just another chunk that could be added to others. McNealy’s work always entails this adding together of things that can stand as wholes in themselves. His work is a dig in the here and now that implies a dual process of fragmentation and reconstruction of a culture.

Richard Rhodes