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Illusions of Relief

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STEVEN MACGOWAN

at Eva Cohon Gallery, through October 20

Viewing Steven MacGowan's 12 new works at Eva Cohon Gallery, I thought I'd come upon a particularly skilled photorealist painter: he depicts urban settings with amazingly lifelike textures and depth. Then I suddenly realized I was viewing carved reliefs--the wooden benches were actually three-dimensional wooden forms; the stone wall was as rough textured as it looked.

This moment of surprise is important to MacGowan. "I feel that it is so interrupting to the viewer," he says, "when they realize that [the work] is not flat and that it is a part of their space." Seeing these works as pictures hung on the wall, the viewer approaches them with the distance one brings to paintings; the realization that they're carved comes almost as an intrusion, as if the figures in a picture were coming to life. The vividness of these works stems from MacGowan's masterful use of perspective in the carving and the care with which he creates his surfaces. He also supplies hints of drama: these desolate urban spaces are filled with signs of past human presence.

MacGowan, 41, has lived most of his life in small Michigan towns; he now resides in Sodus. His present direction dates from 1984, when he saw a painted wood carving of a western scene at an art fair; afterward he sought out wood-carvers for instruction. He begins with photographs taken on trips to New York and Chicago, then makes a drawing that's usually a composite of several photos. The wood panel he begins with is typically made of two-inch-thick butternut boards laminated together. He transfers his drawing to the surface and begins carving. Afterward he applies other materials to give each surface a realistic texture, often using glue and sand he collects and strains, separating it into different sizes. In other places he attacks the wood with sandpaper and a hammer. He then paints the work, and finally applies things like crushed glass and small pieces of paper.

Choice, No Choice shows the passageway under an overpass. A stone wall and two benches run along the passageway, the benches carved and painted to suggest wood grain (MacGowan first had to cover the underlying wood with multiple coats of gesso to hide its natural grain). The cracks in the sidewalk are real cracks carved in the wood. Under one of the benches are two pieces of white paper and an empty chips bag, rendered in relief; two straws are similarly sculpted, so that there are tiny shadows where they meet the pavement.

The effect of this careful realism is to dissolve the customary separation between artwork and viewer: disturbingly, this object invades the viewer's space. These sculpted surfaces, painted only to create colors, give the scenes an uneasy, even haunting, physicality. As a result the graffiti on the wall, including many names, presumably of kids, evoke their presence far more directly than most graffiti depicted in art. Following the line of the bench and wall leads the eye to one of the papers, which reads "Sammie Sue get well soon"; it's signed "Daddy." This is a highly personal reference, given the dedication in the exhibition's catalog to "our daughter Samantha MacGowan 1984-1993." If there is a tinge of bitterness in the placement of this now futile get-well note amid the trash, the way the work collapses art's customary aesthetic distancing makes this seem a real note written by one living person to another.

In depicting ordinary pavements and urban detritus so vitally, MacGowan seeks to redeem them from neglect, to present them as things worthy of attention, both in themselves and as the site of past and future human activity. In City Hall we see part of New York City's governing building reflected in a puddle; in front is a hydrant and two posts, presented almost in the round. They and a manhole cover set within a patch of brick are far more solid and compelling than the flat painted image of the dome's reflection.

Most of The Trib is a cobblestone street with a yellow curb in the background. The sidewalk beyond the curb reveals an elaborate network of cracks; tiny shards of green glass are sprinkled in one part of the foreground so precisely that somehow they seem to stand for every cluster of broken glass. The use of actual glass pulls the painted-wood scene still closer to actuality. At the left, lying in the middle of the street, is a copy of the Chicago Tribune with part of the front section folded over; a creased chips bag has shaped itself to the curb. Both are arranged as if blown by the same wind, whose consistent direction is one of the things that make this work so alive.

If this is a street in which the wind can blow, it is surely a street in which humans walk. Each little scrap evokes the unseen being who left it there--the newspaper, the chips bag, the broken glass all seem more alive, and oddly more human, than the faces in countless mediocre portraits. One recalls the great late-19th-century American trompe l'oeil painters William Harnett and John Peto, who carefully arranged books, letters, or a table setting to create a human drama.

I initially reacted to this show with skepticism. The works were stunning, but to this lover of Cezanne and Pollock they seemed too much like copies of actual scenes to be "art." The role of the artist, my own orthodoxy tells me, is to modify or interpret reality or to create a new reality; these pieces' sleight of hand seemed to push them closer to kitsch. I missed the inner complexity, the paradoxes and contradictions that seem so much a part of art's essential nature.

But then I reflected on the rough time precise realists have had in the last few centuries. Canaletto, an 18th-century painter of Venetian views, was twice refused election to the Venetian academy, apparently because the whole genre of landscape painting was held in low esteem; he was finally admitted only five years before his death. The 19th-century critic John Ruskin despised Canaletto's work: the fact that his pic- tures precisely depicted recognizable scenes supposedly gave them "only" sensual appeal; the intellect's power to see into the inner structure of reality was ignored.

Today a wide range of realist, rather simpleminded art with immediate appeal superficially resembles MacGowan's. But like Canaletto's work, MacGowan's is more complex than it first seems. For instance, his pictures are surrounded by dark-stained wood frames about two inches deep; at first these appear to be quite different from the images, but in fact they're the same wood from which the panels are carved.

The perceptual difference between medium and image is just one of several such contrasts in MacGowan's work. In Armour the varied surfaces of the street at the bottom, each texture distinguished by a different fineness of sand, lead the eye to a closed metal gate, where it's stopped by the faux-metal surface crossed by vertical cracks. If the rough surfaces of the street are inviting, even seductive, the gate's surface denies entry. The gate is covered, however, with florid, multicolored graffiti, whose varied shapes give a human expressiveness to this peep-show-like street scene. (Here as elsewhere MacGowan's graffiti seem almost too good, too perfect in their showy randomness: this is the one element the artist largely invents, rather than copies from photographs.)

There is a kind of hierarchy in MacGowan's work. Smooth, clean geometric surfaces are the least evocative; products of the human hand, such as graffiti, the most suggestive. Artifacts like chips wrappers are somewhere in between. Also in between, but powerful, are areas of decay that become stories in themselves. Pieces of brick and mortar are missing from the wall in Armour, and two pipes running up it are almost completely exposed. These exposed pipes and empty spaces (created by indentations in the surface) have the vividness of some great, now past human drama.

Equally dramatic differences can be found in other works. Spill View shows a street and sidewalk; the bricks near the curb are partly covered by puddles of completely still water that reflect a building facade. The rough surfaces of bricks and curb stop the eye, but the clear reflected image is like a window on limitless depth. The perceptual difference is so extreme as to suggest, in best high modernist fashion, the utter artificiality of both surfaces--could this creator of vivid illusions be acknowledging his own artifice?

In fact MacGowan constantly modifies his work's hyperreality with just such acknowledgments. The carved details are never perfectly three-dimensional--within a two-inch-thick panel they can't be. MacGowan calculates their forms to produce relatively consistent illusions of depth, but when one examines them up close the artifice is revealed. The panels often create realistic shadows when lit from above in the gallery, so that the space under the bench is dark; but there are inevitably false-to-nature shadows as well. Embodied in these panels is the desire to hold on to, even own the physical world--at bottom a desire to make an instant in the physical world so absolute as to stop time. And a work that merely reconstitutes reality has that effect on the viewer: he views the entire work in an instant. But the varying surfaces, the decay, the references to past human presence, and the many contradictions within MacGowan's work have precisely the opposite effect: by acknowledging the ephemerality of reality and the imperfections of illusionistic art, they set time and the viewer's mind moving again.

My favorite, A Child's Eye, is the piece most haunted by ephemerality. It shows a sidewalk with a horizon- tal straight crack--the expansion seam--and a more recent jagged crack running vertically. The pavement is covered with children's drawings, apparently in chalk--part of a hopscotch board, a few small figures, and a large drawing of a little girl in red, purple, brown, blue, and yellow; her arms are extended as she smiles. This, MacGowan told me, is how he thinks his daughter might have drawn herself. The paint is applied to the roughly textured pavement with oil stick, which skips over some parts as chalk does on a sidewalk. The sketchy, evanescent drawing suggests a human presence that's equally tenuous and impermanent--as tenuous as all MacGowan's artifices, when one sees the contradictions beneath them. There is a real modesty to his art, whose central desire seems to be to hold on to a cracked piece of pavement, or a child's smile, while acknowledging that even this limited goal is futile.

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