New York

Medrie MacPhee

Philippe Daverio Gallery

Focusing on the industrial machinery that provided the base on which the economic wealth of North America was originally built, Medrie MacPhee’s recent show succeeded in breathing fresh life into that well-worn 20th-century theme—the relationship of man and machine.

The more service-oriented societies such as the United States become, the more curiously exotic common devices such as pipes, tanks, conduits, conveyers, and containing walls seem; MacPhee’s approach to her subject, which is part objective—mindful of appearances and functions—and part romantic, plays this quality up.

The harbor front in Montreal is a favorite location of MacPhee’s, and she has built a repertory of mechanical structures from studies of such industrial sites. Reality, however, was only her starting point; imagination also informs the fascinating transfigurations of things, imbuing them with a vital anthropomorphism.

Depicted from below, the placement and size of the complex apparatus pictured in Press, 1989, heightened by MacPhee’s dramatic use of close-ups, richly modeled contours, and light-dark contrasts, create the sensation of plunging headlong into the inner body of the machine. At the same time, sunny greens and patches of blue suggest more benign landscape associations.

The garden theme becomes explicit in a painting entitled Frida’s Garden, 1990, inspired by a visit to the Mexico City house of painter Frida Kahlo. Here the machine is used to suggest the eerily magical quality of the place. Situated against a light-filled pink-and-blue sky, tanks (including one encased in a box-shaped concrete container), open metal structures, and pipes take on the appearance of figures in the landscape, as do other forms, such as the tanks, with small protuberances at the top that can be read as heads. The animated quality of these images underscores a general tension between technology and nature, while the allusion to Kahlo invites us to consider the role of feeling within industrial reality.

Ronny Cohen