New York

Saira McLaren, Untitled (Bright Brush), 2014, pigment and dye on raw canvas, 64 × 59".

Saira McLaren, Untitled (Bright Brush), 2014, pigment and dye on raw canvas, 64 × 59".

Saira McLaren

Sargent's Daughters

Saira McLaren, Untitled (Bright Brush), 2014, pigment and dye on raw canvas, 64 × 59".

Saira McLaren’s show saved my sober January. Here were nine bibulous paintings: raw canvas sponges that had absorbed several centuries of landscape tradition and were drunk on garish color but still quick on their feet. (Birds in Spring carries the date of 2015, as if brought into the gallery still wet from the studio; all the other works were from 2014.) Looking like Gilded Age scholars’ rocks, three slumped and shimmering ceramics accompanied the paintings. The overall effect was of a seasonal shift, when buds begin to break through frost and everything seems to be dripping and dazzlingly bright.

McLaren’s not-quite-whole ceramics suggest the precious Asian porcelains found in fin-de-siècle paintings by John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase, but only after they have been knocked over and their pieces melted down and recast with gold and silver putty suturing the cracks. (It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting exhibition for a gallery of this name.) In her smeared shoreline reflections, overgrown garden paths veering toward gestural abstraction, and fried-egg suns, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists loom large, and there are even hints of Gustav Klimt’s gloriously packed botanical compositions (and his Midas touch). But McLaren’s fluorescent florescence also reminds us that graffiti artists work in the en plein air tradition too.

Her forest and lake views evoke the “brilliant watery sunshine” that Charles Burchfield wrote about in his journal and obsessively painted in the first half of the twentieth century. McLaren also absorbs Helen Frankenthaler’s lessons on the power of one color bled over another on unprimed canvas, adding her own Laura Ashley–dress kitsch (she works with fabric dye). There is the feel of Joan Mitchell painting in France near Monet’s garden in the late 1960s (and Mitchell’s famous comment “I carry my landscapes around with me”); there is the isobaric swell of Nacy Graves’s watercolors in the late ’70s (currently on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery); there is Keltie Ferris making sprayed neon elegant.

The shallot shapes covering my favorite work, Untitled (Bright Brush), were reminiscent of the clustered flower rows in Vincent van Gogh’s Cottage Garden, 1888—but also the more delicate charcoal and pencil drawings of James Nelson, on view a month earlier in a strong show at McKenzie Fine Art a few blocks away. But McLaren’s lines are looser, imprecise, almost cartoonish in their dynamism. They bob around in blotches of turquoise, hot pink, yellow, and lime, outlined in navy and red, like a Magic Marker drawing writ large, the pen nibs running dry. This quivering innervation connects her work to Burchfield’s scenery, in which his shaggy trees and shrubs often seem, in his own words, “startled.” McLaren shares with Burchfield the kind of compositional movement that allowed the latter painter to once describe the way in which water drops falling from a branch turned into birds: “Dew drenched” willows, “snapped by the new born breeze, flung upward pieces of silver that struck by the sun were given voice & dissolved into killdeers.”

The accruing references one gathered like burrs while walking through this small exhibition were overwhelming and a little absurd—how else to deal with landscape painting in the contemporary moment but as a rush of historic blooms to the head? Everything, in other words, felt a little hurried, but in an excited way, as if there was no time to waste. The works are themselves in a suspended state of energy, sometimes with an apocalyptic prettiness—Trask Pond, ostensibly a cluster of flowering trees half-reflected in water, also resembles a mushroom cloud. The unabashed beauty of this show might have been tempered by thinking of “season creep,” that amazing term for global warming’s localized acceleration of premature blossoming and melting. The fragile, precipitant nature of and in these works brings a new edge to our appreciation of the ordinary sublime.

Prudence Peiffer