Conor McGrady

NFA Space / Chicago Cultural Center

In his recent large-scale paintings, Conor McGrady at once mines the tradition of full-length portraiture and turns it on its head. Mimicking the compositional style of official commissioned paintings by artists from Giovanni Battista Moroni to Thomas Sully, McGrady locates the personality and power of his subjects as much in their dress and posture as in their facial expressions. In such images the body and its politics become virtual mirrors of each other. But McGrady’s figures express a very different politics from that of the kings and generals that were his predecessors’ subjects: They range from street toughs to white supremacists skinheads and members of various paramilitary organizations.

McGrady’s show at NFA included five large portraits and a group of six smaller works that focus on the scowling faces of hoods. The artist has selected his disaffected and somewhat surly models based on their commitment to violence in the name of one political creed or another. The degree to which that path is emblazoned on their bodies—from hobnailed boots to stem shaved heads, across all the coded adornment in between (tattoos, militaristic garb, symbolic T-shirt insignias)—makes these men excellent candidates for highly rhetorical portraiture. Despite their aggressive posture and challenging stares at the viewer, they exude an easy sense of certitude that is surprisingly peaceful. McGrady’s subject is not so much the idiosyncrasies of a given political climate as it is the construction of the self through emblems of power and authority. The artist, who lives and works in Chicago, is originally from Northern Ireland, and one senses his understanding of the appeal of violent individual political involvement when the social battles are inherited. His familiarity with the hyperarticulated physical trappings of extremist ideology is also clear: He knows, for instance, that the greenish khakis, black boots, L-O-V-E tattoo across four knuckles, and short black jacket with a Celtic cross on one sleeve clearly identify the subject of New Youth, 2001, as a foot soldier in the Troubles to those who would encounter him on his own turf. Less subtle, perhaps, is the sledgehammer on which he insouciantly leans; while his expression is unconcerned, he looks as ready to wield his weapon as was some grim-faced eighteenth-century colonel with his halberd in a Joshua Reynolds painting.

Several of McGrady’s paintings show pairs of figures formally posed. The skinheads of Front, 2002, stand side by side, one casually holding a long wooden lance while his comrade reaches to touch his arm. An alert black doberman stands behind these men, another hint of violence barely suppressed. Here McGrady also implies the collegiality, even a certain clannish homoeroticism,that often accompanies active political commitment.

At the Cultural Center McGrady showed nearly three dozen smallish drawings (some akin to these were included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial in New York). Spare and wan, these cursory watercolors and charcoal drawings depict objects or fragments of a location that might otherwise seem benign but here are eerily imbued with a residue of violence. A small nonchalant blotch of reddish brown at the edge of a schoolyard is enough t o suggest a bloodstain, evidence of some almost washed-away violence to a child. Tools and pieces of bric-a-brac, drawn in McGrady’s dean black lines and isolated on the white paper, look like the most sinister of weapons. The grinding omnipresence of this kind of unexpected but total alienation is McGrady’s ultimate subject, manifested in terms of both person and place.

James Yood