Donald McFadyen; Hollis Sigler

Dart Gallery

This two-person show juxtaposed the work of two artists of quite different pictorial means who are both concerned with the rhetoric of framing. Donald McFadyen and Hollis Sigler make very different choices of technique and scale but share subtle connections of setting within distinct manipulations of the frame.

McFadyen’s tiny paintings are disconcertingly fractional. Debris-strewn alleyways, a pool hall’s gleaming fixtures, body parts, or anxious plumes of smoke are all rendered in oil on wood with nearly photographic accuracy in a palette of blacks, grays, and dusty ochers and browns. These details are highlighted through McFadyen’s use of dramatic chiaroscuro, but his is a light that illuminates without revealing. In several works McFadyen creates a sequence of images by arranging several panels horizontally within a single long frame, suggesting narrative readings. But even these multipart works aren’t fundamentally coherent, for they are related more by similar visual and emotional tone than by any intelligible sequence of scenes.

Viewed from left to right, the first of five panels of In Awe of the Decision Made (An Expression of Grave Doubt), 1987, shows part of a head turned in profile, with the face in shadow and wires to some sort of listening device emerging from a brightly lit ear. This sinister detail is followed by three late-night street scenes: a row of houses with light spilling from the windows, a modern building’s portico and revolving door, and an alley or driveway. The final image, of a human skull with eerily gleaming teeth, suggests the climactic scene of a horror film. But unlike individual frames of film, which flow together and create a seamless whole, McFadyen’s coolly painted fragments are fixed in place and isolated by the edges of the separate panels, which are like chasms that block our attempt to impute cause and effect. In McFadyen’s single images, the small painted panel is usually isolated by a comparatively oversize frame. Untitled, 1987, shows the smoldering ruins of a wooden building under a sickly ocher sky. Each side of its polished maple frame is nearly as wide as the picture itself, and perhaps also as wide as the wooden siding depicted in the scene. Occasionally the frame itself is framed, as in an untitled two-panel work from 1987 in which the upper panel, showing a woman lying in bed, is enclosed in a wide teak frame within a narrow, black lacquer frame, while the lower panel, a detail of a fire seen through a barely opened metal door, is framed only in black lacquer on three sides. The different treatments turn the molding into a kind of structural punctuation between the two images.

Sigler’s colorful, naively rendered drawings and paintings pulsate within brightly decorated frames and mounts. She continues to depict the abandoned interiors characteristic of her past work but has also done desolate urban landscapes in garish colors. Each picture is inscribed with disenfranchised snippets of text, rendered in a childlike script. In some works these titular scrawlings appear on little banners, while in others the words float within the scene.

The dressmaker’s dummy wearing a black formal gown in the pastel drawing Touch Her, She’s a Lucky Stone, 1987, glows with fiery radiation in the middle of a rubble-strewn lot. An audience of empty chairs bears witness to this strange tableau, while the ruins of a large building are silhouetted in black against a dismal red sky. Sigler has floated the drawing above a picture mount studded with collaged magazine images of televisions, record players, and various kitchen appliances, each with a comet’s tail of vividly drawn flames. A similarly littered field is shown in Having It All, 1987, an oil painting, but here the site is an all-too-familiar scene of poverty and decay. An untended bonfire blazes amid wrecked cars, discarded appliances, and assorted detritus in the shadow of elevated train tracks. Perhaps the keeper of this flame lives in the abandoned blue bus, whose curtained windows give off a warm yellow light in the center background of the picture. Sigler’s intense palette and flattened compositions are better suited to the artificial interiors of her earlier work than to the grim realism of this cityscape. The social commentary of the scene is mitigated by the artist’s chromatic and spatial mannerisms.

The painted frames in Sigler’s work suggest stages on which objects stand in for absent people. Their gaudy flourishes evoke the steamy atmosphere of dreams and fantasies. The exaggerated frames encasing McFadyen’s pictures are like the furniture in a dream, calling attention to themselves in ways that place the images they contain at an improbable remove. For both artists, the frame is a measure of the psychological distance to be crossed in constructing the meaning of the work.

Buzz Spector