Doug MacWithey

Barry Whistler Gallery

At the center of this exhibition was a large wooden construction titled An Incomplete Map of Limbo, 1988—three open-ended, rectangular plywood boxes coated in a flat, nondescript house paint. A paint line still shows where the wood has been joined together. Once-functional nails protrude needlessly and somewhat menacingly from a few of the boxes, which are joined roughly with strips of unpainted lumber and pieces of a wooden crate. The whole contraption was hung from the ceiling by heavy wires, touching the gallery floor at one end and arcing improbably across the room. The piece demonstrates an oblique, but undeniable logic in its construction. Starting with the basic structure of the box, MacWithey attempts both to actualize and defeat certain laws of perspective and perception. He alters sight lines in order to make certain sections seem smaller or larger, narrower or wider. What he adjusts on the right side of one box is then balanced on the left side of the next. If gravity holds a particular addition to one box in place, supports are constructed to hold a corresponding piece in place. Once these choices have been set in motion, there is no end to them. As a result, MacWithey’s work is always incomplete, prompting him frequently to refer to even his most elaborate pieces as “studies.”

MacWithey also sees his work—particularly his drawings—as a kind of map making, a venturing into unknown territory in order to produce a guide of the terrain. For MacWithey, a drawing consists of several different ways of depicting an object. On a grid he may draw a meticulous image of a flower, but other images on a page may include a delicately colored transferred image from a book of natural-history illustration. He often traces outlines of three-dimensional objects, or tapes actual specimens (flowers, insects) directly onto the paper. Included alongside all this is MacWithey’s handwritten, nearly indecipherable text, which records his thoughts and working processes. In attempting to bring order to the previously unknown, MacWithey also betrays an interest in taxonomic systems. He follows the natural historian’s method of functional ordering with a numbering and lettering system of the endless variations he conceives. Eventually the systems break down, but that failure is accepted as a part of the work and inseparable from its ambitions.

Inaccurate readings, misguided attempts, and assaults on the impossible are fundamental processes in MacWithey’s work. They provide the emotional ground for the artist’s complex formal investigations and arcane frame of literary references. Although they draw on a purely imaginary realm, once they are realized on paper or in space, they become facts the viewer must confront. We are drawn into their relentless, arbitrary logic and held by their clumsy eloquence.

Charles Dee Mitchell