Ryan McLaughlin, Demeter, 2017, oil on canvas, 15 1/2 × 24".

Ryan McLaughlin, Demeter, 2017, oil on canvas, 15 1/2 × 24".

Ryan McLaughlin

Ryan McLaughlin, Demeter, 2017, oil on canvas, 15 1/2 × 24".

Recently returned to the US after a multiyear sojourn in Berlin, American painter Ryan McLaughlin has come home to a changed nation. His country’s public life, always grotesque, has become an outright horror show, riven by daily violence and the breakdown of any common public language. How might a painter like McLaughlin, of such searching intelligence and melancholy sensibility, get along in this stridently polarized era?

At Adams and Ollman, McLaughlin continued his long-standing practice of graphic appropriation, showing a suite of seven paintings from 2017 that feature hieroglyphic shapes set afloat in fields of gentle taupes, tans, and frank browns. Demeter, one of the larger works on display, presents fruit-like forms—a dusty hot-pink apple recognizable by its stem, maybe a banana, and maybe a wilted green snap pea—rendered in silhouette beneath a sickly (yet lovely) baby-shit-brown overcoat. These explicit vegetal signifiers comprise only one part of the overall design schema, however, sharing space with other, more nebulous icons, such as a dijon-colored star and an oval flecked with midnight lavender. The pictographs orbit each other, suggesting allusive meanings that never entirely resolve—leaving the viewer to languish in a lightly charged realm one might reasonably call poetic, or simply beautiful.

Another painting, also titled Demeter, revisits a recurring motif within the artist’s oeuvre: the logo for the titular German organic-food-certification organization named after the goddess of the harvest. In McLaughlin’s hands, the logo, painted in off white, raspberry pink, and forest green and set against a battleship-gray backdrop, commands central attention even as the letters forming it are garbled and indistinct. The conceptual goal seems less polemical here (a critique of corporate branding or of the agricultural-industrial complex) than simply observational: a Ruschavian presentation of a word that’s also an expressive image. If the picture’s intimate signification hints at a politics of communication, it enters as a whisper or an echo, not as a scream.

The remaining untitled works, even more gnomic in nature than the Demeter paintings, emit a muted, pre-distressed glow. Here, McLaughlin’s rustic and intellectual tendencies combine, generating images rich in both aura and ad hoc syntax. The resulting aesthetic is akin to that of self-taught artist Bill Traylor by way of Jasper Johns. One canvas depicts a blocky bovine in navy with a white cross emblazoned on its flank, partially evoking the Swiss flag, partially resembling an ambulance. Elsewhere, symbols and fragments of symbols cluster in different formations, incorporating alphabets, dots, squiggles, and insignia, but always the semiotic circuits remain muzzled and damp. Ultimately one’s attention returns to the paint itself, which is applied with a uniformly supple, delicate thoughtfulness.  

In an age of fiercely announced opinion and identity, McLaughlin’s tendency toward self-effacement comes as a tonic. If anything, his voice only seems to get quieter as the headlines become ever more explosive. While his early figurative work held a certain Philip Guston–influenced archness, involving cartoonish still lifes and flashes of the postwar painter’s favored emerald green and pork-chop pink, McLaughlin’s most recent output pursues a rigorous intimacy of scale and vibe. His voice, though increasingly hermetic, is also at once critical, lyrical, and earthy. These paintings invite the viewer into the mind and eye of a person they might actually want to know, who lives in a place they might actually want to be.

Jon Raymond