New York

Ryan McLaughlin, Wetter (Weather), 2013, oil on linen on MDF, 35 1/2 x 25 3/4".

Ryan McLaughlin, Wetter (Weather), 2013, oil on linen on MDF, 35 1/2 x 25 3/4".

Ryan McLaughlin

Ryan McLaughlin, Wetter (Weather), 2013, oil on linen on MDF, 35 1/2 x 25 3/4".

“Raisins,” the title of young Berlin-based American painter Ryan McLaughlin’s first US solo exhibition, hints at something dense, dark, and sugary. Yet the show’s eight works are much lighter and looser than the moniker suggests. Having become known over the past few years for a stylized, slightly cartoonish take on the classical still life, McLaughlin here worked with fragments of signs, logos, and other graphics and texts to produce a series of semifigurative compositions in dusty colors that float just free of definitive association. Realized in oil on MDF or in oil on linen or canvas stretched over framed MDF panels, they have a considered but never worried-over air, as if designed with much deliberation but executed with fluent speed.

Space (all works 2013) was perhaps the picture here that most neatly bridged the gap between McLaughlin’s previous work and his current practice. At eight by ten inches, it was also the smallest, but it has a gentle yet insistent luminosity that fully held the wall. A seemingly casual arrangement of vaguely planet-like forms, the work flirts with the conventions of still life without depending on them for its effect, collapsing and confusing scales and subjects until all we’re looking at, really, is paint. In this case (and unusually for the artist), that paint—in pale green, rose pink, creamy yellow, and various warm shades of gray—has a substantial opacity and sits atop its support like jam on toast.

Elsewhere, McLaughlin’s imagery was similarly filtered: One could be forgiven for failing to immediately discern a map of Germany in Wetter (Weather), for example, in spite of the fact that it occupies the greater part of the canvas. Simplified into an angular amoeba in hazy gray-blue, the country is also sprinkled with bulbous clouds, from some of which rain falls (hence the title). At the top and bottom of the canvas are fuzzy strips of images that include a blue-and-yellow EU flag and the familiar heraldic Bundesadler of Germany’s coat of arms. The artist’s emergent interest in details on the margins is also evident in OC*AN, in which a central field of gray-brown is surrounded by strips of blue, violet, pink, and yellow, and by symbols stationed at each corner. The title spans the top of the painting in blocky white letters like a distant Hollywood sign.

McLaughlin’s muted palette, controlled painterly application, and comfort with restricted scale lend his work a slightly Johnsian feel, especially as both artists immerse themselves in Pop iconography only to abstract from it, exploiting it as a source of formal inspiration as much as a contemporary cultural referent. It’s possible to discover that the logo in Demeter also appears on packets of German muesli, but the information is hardly vital. Yet McLaughlin’s sensibility is gentler than his elder’s; lacking the systematic repetition found in Johns’s works, his paintings can seem almost childlike in their relative heterogeneity and mood of relaxed playfulness. With their quieter, dreamier air, they’re also more straightforwardly and immediately emotive—friendlier, at the risk of sounding sappy.

Curator Scott Weaver’s characterization of McLaughlin’s process in the essay that accompanies the exhibition as “honest, methodical and skilled” makes the results sound likely to be dull indeed; happily, the artist’s ability isn’t the kind that weighs too heavily on its product. It would be impossible, surely, to look at Wasserbetriebe (Waterworks), with its design borrowed from signs used by German water utilities, and feel anything but pleasure in the artist’s deft but unshowy reworking.

Michael Wilson