Among painting genres, one most definitively affected by photography is still life. If we think of contemporary still life, the photographs of Elad Lassry, Roe Ethridge or Thomas Demand come to mind. Photography’s exhaustive objectification of its subjects suits the genre’s close-up scrutiny. Ryan McLaughlin, however, is essentially a still-life painter. The young American tends to paint accumulations of objects, arranged in tightly packed compositions, but occupying the shallow space of abstract painting. His marks are apt to trail off in a self-regarding wisp, as if confirming that gesture precedes object.
At Lüttgenmeijer, seven small paintings (all 2012) were sparsely hung. The show’s title, “Barbara,” might refer to Christian Petzold’s recent film of that name—a dour meditation on the former GDR in the early 1980s —given that these are the dourest paintings McLaughlin has exhibited, and he lives in Berlin. McLaughlin has exchanged his usual oil for a matte egg-tempera technique, while his palette of sour lemon, olive and carmine has been muted to grisaille shades. These are signs of an attempt to deepen, if not broaden, his range.
An excess of white pigment in the thinly applied tempera corresponds to memory’s unreliability. Objects have been almost obliterated by gray-white tints, as though fading into the past. The trope is familiar from Luc Tuymans’s work, although the wan cheer of McLaughlin’s nostalgia couldn’t be further removed from Tuymans’s sense of history as a nightmare from which he is trying to awaken. The past, for McLaughlin, is bittersweet, but never pious or portentous. Schinkel Nächte depicts a street lantern emerging from the gloom in a few deft strokes that might have been borrowed from a repository of traditional ciphers.
The two largest paintings, Summer and Winter (each 28 by 161⁄2 inches), also deal in an abbreviated sign language, but one suggesting wistful evocations of childhood—a snowman, a beach ball, a yellow spade. However, like the lantern, these objects are stock signifiers, as the paintings’ generic titles imply. The slipperiness between owning a perception and designating it as a cultural appropriation corresponds to that between subjectivity and its evasion. McLaughlin’s images, floating in their milky fields, dissolve. Their illegibility suggests the flourish of painterly abstraction overcoming the forms it describes (a kind of self-aggrandizement) as much as it indicates the dissolution of memory (conversely, a kind of self-effacement). The white ball in the top right-hand corner of Summer might be a fluffy cloud surmounting the beach scene, or a lesion in the painting’s illusion.
McLaughlin’s most haunting images cannot be assigned to generic or traditional sources, and seem tantalizingly specific yet impossible to locate. Chicken Rabbit is a bunny figure so ill-defined that it is hardly more than a blob with ears, the contours pathetically following the parameters of the canvas, as though too diffident to contradict them. It might be a gnawing memory, all the more troubling for its vagueness. Fruit Wagon adapts an art historical cliché, the bucolic pastoral scene. But the hay-filled wagon trundling through a glade has wheels that glower like mismatched eyes under a mop of unruly hair. McLaughlin has painted a place so remote and unreal that the importunacy of its central image seems to outstrip, and even deny, the only world it has to occupy.
Ryan McLaughlin: Summer, 2012, egg oil tempera on linen on board, 28 by 161⁄2 inches; at Lüttgenmeijer.