East City Art Reviews: McCain McMurray Pictures of Nothing

By Jan Aucker on October 25, 2018
Installation View – Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Arts.

Abstract art allows the artist to communicate visually without forms or tangible objects.  McCain McMurray’s latest exhibition at Touchstone Gallery takes the show’s title Pictures of Nothing, once used to describe the atmospheric work of J.M.W. Turner, to evoke an emotion or mood for the viewer. During the early 19th century, there was a general expectation that a work of art had recognizable images and scenes.  McMurray paints abstract images to create essays on places or memories, which he claims is not pictures of something.  This statement and his reference to Turner seems a contradiction as this series contain works that emulate the same intent.

McMurray starting painting eight years ago.  As a practicing architect, he was inspired by the sculptures of Anne Truitt in which planes of color on architectural forms almost seem to lift off the ground.  The show contains long vertical forms of various thicknesses and colors painted on canvas and paper. The artist uses acrylic paint adding gel mediums to alter the consistency and control transparency.  He uses a roller applying pressure to create texture and width of the stripes.  Other medium includes bottled ink, “Wite-Out” correction fluid and a clear polymer that creates an encaustic effect.  The canvases are unprimed, which allows the pigment to seep into the fabric and stain the surface.  According to McMurray, his art defines the essence of space and familiarity.

1857 and 1858, 2018 – 16”x16”x1.5”, Mixed media on panel. Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Arts.

As you look around the gallery, you will notice the large volume of paintings in various sizes. Most hang as diptychs but titled and priced individually.  There is a logical color palette progression especially the multiple series of ten 16”x16”x1.5” works arranged around the space.  Upon closer examination, the layers of medium are evident as the colors overlay and bleed into each other while maintaining their vertical lines. These paintings are the closest to the artist’s intent, titled as four-digit numbers.  The viewer isn’t provided with any information on the artist’s subject or a personal experience.  However, the artist has painted abstract ideas that has mentally engaged us as we process his very intricate surfaces.

Installation View – Photo by Jan Aucker for East City Arts.

In contrast, McMurray’s larger paintings are notably different with their lighter hues and translucent qualities.  These have meaningful titles representing places in the Caribbean particularly Saint Barthelemy.   In Anse de Corossol, the colors in the vertical forms have a calming effect. The artist’s technique of layering various shades of blues and green captures the serenity of the waters in this small bay.  His subtle blending effects combined with dripping of the gel medium provides movement as waves lap on the shore.

Anse de Corossol , 2018 – 42” x 36”. Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Following the same theme, two works titled Anse de Gros Sable and Anse Petit Jean, the artist mixes colors that are opaquer.  Through his juxtaposition of light to dark on each painting, he stimulates the perception of the viewers to make up their own narrative.  The artist has created an essay on a place or memory. McMurray titled these larger canvases because they felt distinct and focused.

Anse de Gros Sable, 2018, 35” x 28”x 1.75”. Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Anse Petit Jean , 2018, 35” x 28”x 1.75”. Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Mixed in with the canvases are a few diptychs and triptychs on 22” x 5” panels.  The artist has painted his stripes horizontally on these vertical forms.  Colors and textures flow beneath the section breaks displaying a more noticeable staining process.  This is especially evident with SBH 37 Triptych, which is quite different compared to the other works in the show.  Painted in 2015, the panels are blotches of transparent color, seeping into one another. The hues and forms play off each other as faint horizontal lines almost delineate a horizon separating water and sky.  This work has movement and brightness. In some ways, it is very close to other abstract artist’s dramatic way of capturing light.

SBH 37 Triptych, 2015, 30″x 7″. Mixed media on paper on panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Turner’s exploration into the idea of making pictures that were intangible was transcending for his time.  William Hazlitt 19th-century essayist and art critic dismissed Turner’s experiments with atmospheric effects as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”  McMurray’s take on this theme is an attempt to explore the concept of losing the image completely to generate a mood or emotion.  However, in some cases his abstracts have evoked places or memories that allows the viewer to make up their own narrative. Viewing his paintings call to mind nature or provoke feelings of something that is beyond comprehension. Similar to standing on a cliff or the top of a mountain contemplating the awe-inspiring beauty.  His art challenges us to keep looking, as he makes pictures of something.

Pictures of Nothing is on view through October 28, 2018 at Touchstone Gallery located at 901 901 New York Ave, NW.  Touchstone Gallery is located at 901 New York Ave. NW. For more information, visit www.touchstonegallery.com.

An artist talk is scheduled for Saturday October 27 from 2-4 pm at Touchstone Gallery at 3pm