John McAllister, once were wild, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 × 61".

John McAllister, once were wild, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 × 61".

John McAllister

Shane Campbell Gallery | North Harvey Avenue

John McAllister, once were wild, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 × 61".

The ten works (all 2017) that constituted John McAllister’s exhibition “botanic haunting soft-static” were systematically built out of visual vocabularies that bridge the pictorial and the decorative, comprising organic contours and geometric patterns, tonal atmospheres and linear perspectives, thick outlines and full-spectrum transitions, distant horizons and shallow window frames. McAllister calls upon still-life and landscape traditions to host these seemingly contrary structural languages. The influence of modernists such as Henri Matisse, Odilon Redon, Édouard Vuillard, and Gustav Klimt was as distinct as the highlighter quality of the bright pinks and purples that imbued this selection of paintings. This was particularly evident in the canvas hymns hubbub heard, in which a unifying expanse of salmon pigment binds a flat and diagrammatic interior space to a lyrical bouquet of spherical blooms. A window (or perhaps a picture hanging on the wall?) behind the floral arrangement displays a nocturnal landscape with a long-leafed purple plant.

Hanging to the left of hymns hubbub heard was a smaller canvas (titled confections dawn drowsed) centrally dominated by a vase of flowers. This motif is symmetrically flanked by a glass, containing a humorously bent straw, and a transparent plastic soda bottle. The familiarity of these contemporary vernacular objects was jarring within the timeless composition. The still-life components were scarcely discernible due to their rendering in an intense pink similar to that of the background. Slightly darker pink lines contour the spherical flower heads and angular foliage, while an array of thick vertical and horizontal purple stripes behind the bouquet acts like wallpaper. These elements are reminiscent of Matisse’s spatially dynamic canvas The Red Studio, 1911. And, like Matisse’s, McAllister’s heavy reliance on line work has a flattening effect that heightens the paintings’s decorative qualities. Further enhancing this ornamental impression, McAllister employs a framing contrivance—graphic patterning along the work’s edges that offsets the pictorial zone of the still life (a scheme applied in like manner to all of the paintings that were on display)—to create a mise en abyme.

Installed on the wall opposite hymns hubbub heard was the painting once were wild, a florid garden scene populated by highly stylized ferns and flowering plants emerging from a dry-brushed purple ground littered with small sticks and flat, frontally oriented leaves. The silhouette of a black cat with dull brown eyes occupies the center of the painting, its vertical tail visually mimicking the upward gestures of the exotic vegetation around it. Outlined in glowing orange and lacking any definitive modeling, the feline functions as an anomalous cutout shape within a field of graphic inventions—resisting participation in any sort of pictorial narrative. The scene is framed on three sides by narrow, chalky-pink bands interrupted with diagonal lines. Whereas the decorative borders in hymns hubbub heard serve to gild the lily, they do little to enhance the already fantastical landscape in once were wild. Nor do the borders spatially reposition the scenery as a window-framed vista or a painting on an interior wall.

In the center of the gallery McAllister erected an architectural folly (titled clouds sugared silence) constructed from three curved, freestanding canvas- and burlap-covered folding panels. The outside surfaces of the panels are embellished with vertical pink and purple stripes, while the inside walls depict landscapes with horizons broken up by dangling, blossoming willow boughs and erect conifers. Each of the interior landscapes boasts hot-pink edges. The positioning of these panels also operated as a framing conceit; as the viewer circled around the outside of the structure, the bowed walls cropped views of the paintings adorning the inside of the folly. When one stands inside the volume, the gaps between the panels function as viewfinders, recontextualizing the paintings hanging on the gallery’s perimeter walls. While each work in the exhibition earnestly strove to balance the visual seduction of color and pattern with spatial intelligence, McAllister’s compositional formula is too dependent on framing devices that yield to a visual lexicon of ornament. Any nods to the psychological complexity of the genres invoked were ultimately outmaneuvered by the commingling of vivid pinks and purples, flattened organic motifs, and geometric patterns.

Michelle Grabner