Kelly McLane, "I Dream of Vegas," May 9-June 14, 2003, at Angles Gallery, 2230 and 2222 Main Street, Santa Monica, Ca. 90405
Kelly McLane's new paintings, recently on view in her second solo outing at Angles Gallery in Los Angeles, are evocative of dramatic, 19th-century Romantic landscapes. These soaring vistas have become emblems of the "sublime," a psychological state characterized by overwhelming feelings of dread and powerlessness in the face of the vastness and raw beauty of untamed nature.
At first glance, McLane's lovely yet foreboding works might be mistaken for a J.M.W. Turner canvas such as Snowstorm (1842). But up close, a painting like Bad Day for Meth Lab #3 and #4 is wholly unromantic, depicting chain link fencing and oil well pumps pelted by rubble from an explosion, most likely brought about by the jittery miscalculations of a tweaker fatally manic from sampling his own product.
One might imagine the setting of Bad Day to be the desolate outskirts of a town like Derby Acres in the foothills of California's San Joaquin Valley. Far more likely to be termed a hellhole than an example of the natural sublime, the scalding summer air there is saturated with a tarry stink from nearby petroleum fields. Whatever its obvious shortcomings, places like this are still shaped by the frontier philosophy of "live and let live" that provides haven for loose screws of all kinds.
McLane gathered visual material for this series during road trips through the Southwest, a landscape that perhaps explains her predilection for muted tan, yellow and golden hues. Her imagery, drafted in light pencil and exceedingly pale washes of oil paint onto smooth, gessoed surfaces, is stripped clean of extraneous detail and rearranged like a cluster of prized curios in a cabinet. Disjunctures of distance and perspective in her compositions suggest they come to her during daydreams, that marvelous inner site poised between consciousness and sleep where unrelated thoughts, events and images are pieced together with persuasively lucid yet unreal logic.
An ice-laden tree commands the foreground in Check Your Baggage, but also shares the frame with a teddy-bear parade balloon, a vertigo-inspiring roller coaster, a jet that has skidded off a runway into a snow bank, and a spindly palm tree standing at the banks of an artificial waterfall. McLane presents her illusory scene with such agility and understated confidence that it becomes entirely convincing.
In this dreamscape, benign proxies are substituted for the far more fearsome aspects of nature. The teddy bear is most obviously iconic, a mildly ridiculous distant cousin of the grizzly, which once roamed much of the West but nowadays is mostly confined to isolated pockets of backcountry. Similarly, the roller coaster is indexical, standing in for an ecstatic capitulation to the sublime with guardrails and safety belts. In the lineage of theme-park attractions, a direct association with the natural sublime is most overt in rides like the now hokey Matterhorn at Disneyland. Newer, more streamlined roller coasters cut to the quick of the experience with an expediency demanded by contemporary thrill-seekers.
Dreams are said to be compromises made by the mind in order to protect its owner from being disturbed by unconscious conflicts while at rest. Anxieties are disguised and their difficult content symbolically discharged in cryptic or absurd scenarios. In waking hours, such repressed material can be subjected to a process of sublimation whereby it is made to conform to some higher ideal.
In the mythology of the West, there are those who face the sublime head-on, seeking spiritual incorporation into the seemingly limitless and intractable wilderness. However, as a result of expansive population growth and advances in technology that have increased accessibility, remote is much closer that it once was. One tragic outcome of this is that the fantasy of solitary immersion in nature is inevitably disrupted by the arrival of some doofus wearing Patagonia and a camelback.
In "I Dream of Vegas," Kelly McLane sublimates the sublime. Perhaps mourning the loss of the acutely frightening and exhilarating in nature, she covers her tracks by making their sorry substitutes achingly beautiful.
KRISTINA NEWHOUSE is an art writer and curator who lives in Santa Monica.