Christina McPhee and the Political Abstract

Articles referenced: Robert Summers gallery coverage, Melissa Potter interview, and Pamela Z Berkeley performance

Christina McPhee’s work is particularly interesting to me in how it blends theory with relevant pressing topics to create a sort of abstract synthesis of information represented through art. This manifests in a number of different forms and mediums, with more traditional layered abstractions on paper tending to define her more early work whereas more recent projects tend to center on new media technology, most relevant to the concerns of FemTech.
In terms of her physical artwork, it tends to tie political themes through abstract representation. Summers, in exploring her “Second Sight” exhibit, describes her 2D abstract creations as “queer abstraction,” in which temporality is distorted and captured through color and form which ties back to memory. Here it crucially differs from the dominant patriarchal school of abstract art, rejecting those sensibilities in favor of its own “drawn performance” of feminist and queer thought. He describes the pieces as themselves quite melancholy, drawn in moody, dark colors through oils and inks and more. The color choices are political in of themselves, such as the yellows chosen to represent oil in one piece about oil spills. Though abstract, they do connect to real meaning and issues and perform new ideas.

In conversation with Melissa Porter, McPhee explains her approach in more depth. She describes her approach to her pieces as “trying to create a record or report of an attempt to model,” finding ways to represent, for example, statistics on sea temperatures in a piece on climate change through abstract art. Fragments of meaning are then gathered from a wide breadth and united in a piece of art to create a new whole which stands as an intricate exploration of a larger issue. Though I do not fully understand the layers of commentary to these pieces, which she describes as ironic and full of double entendre in ways I can’t quite wrap my head around, they are a fascinating approach to me as a way of creating meaning from parts and synthesizing and re-representing them as new things. The use of photomontage in some of these pieces I find particularly relevant and poignant.

In many ways, it’s these pieces with a firm foundation chopped up and reassembled I can most grasp onto and understand. Her collaboration with Pamela Z is fascinating, using image to accompany the singer and add to environmental meaning in complex ways. Tied to listing of data vocally it becomes a multisensory expression of science into an artistic appeal, which sounds particularly compelling to me. The article primarily focuses on Z, but the richness of the collaboration potential intruiges me. Z appears to be an artist engaged in multimedia expression of serious issues, and I can certainly see why McPhee’s abstract, queer, feminist capturing and exploration of data through video and new media would be a strong area for collaboration and expansion in expression.

-Kevin Burnard

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One thought on “Christina McPhee and the Political Abstract

  1. Christina McPhee’s descriptions of her own work are so interesting to read. WOW. I can’t help but think of her work in combination with the words of Marshal McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” Each of her works, independent of the content it mediates, has its own inherent effect on the viewer. In recounting traumatic memory and reconstituting ideas of the future, McPhee utilizes materials: her strokes, colors, layers, and the overall expressiveness of her work to communicate an open, queer interpretation of our current environmental predicament. Through her work, she expresses the traumatic sensations of nature’s destruction and regeneration, entangling the psychological and environmental to produce a “record or report of an attempt to model.” Like you said, this combination of content and form create “a synthesis of information.”

    I thought her responses in the BOMB Artists in Conversation Q&A were similar to that in her Digicult interview. Her photomontage style, like the work of Joan Jonas, plays with our perception of temporality and spatiality. As McPhee says in her Digicult interview, “nothing is predetermined, no perspective is optimal, no subjectivity commands authority.” In this vein, McPhee’s work is highly feminist, subverting masculine domination and Cartesian binaries of “natural” versus “digital,” in favor of the ephemeral, a feeling or sensation that is just out of touch or just beyond conceptualization. By decentering her work in photomontage, utilizing drawing, painting, film, photograph, and data sets, McPhee provides an assemblage of the local and intimate in fragments that create a feeling of an immanent whole.

    I really enjoyed Robert Summer’s description of McPhee’s work as seeming “to move, to pulsate—in that the foreground, middle ground, and background trespass each other.” This play of layers, lights and darks, reminds me of McPhee’s description of her own work in the Digicult interview. She described her use of color as “shadowing forth,” in which knowing a space means risking being outside of comfort, moving in a direction that is not fully ascertainable, or still in shadow. Again, this seems to be in line with McLuhan’s, “the medium is the message.” Her juxtapositions of light and dark, of hard and light stroke, invite us to unpack the form and content of the artwork as one in the same; the experience this produces is immersive. As Summer’s poignantly describes viewing Second Sight (2016), “In closely looking at it, I could simultaneously hear McPhee drawing and scribbling rapidly.. And, it was in this moment and movement that a memory was evoked—what Roland Barthes calls a “punctum”: the sudden recollection that punctured me, that created a hole that drew me into a memory.”

    This technical process of “shadowing forth,” can also be seen in her collaboration with Pamela Z in Carbon Song Cycle. As you described, their collaboration “becomes a multisensory expression of science into an artistic appeal,” that combines the temporality of future carbon accumulation with the audible and visual, creating an experience that is a record of natural memory and future traumas.

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