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A Black-and-White Worldview


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Conor McGrady's stark drawings and paintings at Thomas Robertello are done in blacks, whites, and a few shades of gray. Their harsh lone figures and empty public spaces are haunted by a vague menace. McGrady says his youth in embattled Northern Ireland is key to his work but that his pieces also refer to the U.S. security state today.

McGrady says he chose black and white because his subject is "how power manifests itself in state structures and the urban environment. Power conceives of itself as being solid and impermeable." The grays take the work in a different direction: "I like the tension they give, sometimes bleeding off the solid black lines, suggesting impermanence." Repository is based on a photo he took in Washington, D.C., which struck him as an "imperial city, the heart of empire, its buildings meant to imply order and stability." The empty, blank interior of Post Office refers to what he calls Great Britain's "symbols of stasis and immobility, where you have to cash your welfare check." Three paintings show military or police officers. In Chief, it's a man with his hand on a skull: whereas contemplating a skull in old master paintings signals an awareness of mortality, this officer displays it like a trophy. The figure in Servant carries a lamb in one arm and a batten in the other, while the officer in Leader has a lion at his side ("a symbol of power and empire") rather than a police dog.

McGrady doesn't recognize the legitimacy of British rule in his homeland, which he calls "the north of Ireland" or "the six counties." The working-class town he grew up in, Castlewellan, was heavily patrolled by the British military, and when he was a child in the 70s there were bombings and shootings. "My friends and I played war games," he says. "But no one wanted to be the English, so we got these odd combinations, like U.S. versus Japanese." Killing wasn't just a game. "One of our neighbors was shot dead by the British army in woods where we played. When I was around seven or eight, a teenager was brutally tortured and killed and his body dumped on the main street. There was a palpable sense that these things could happen to you. In the years since, I've done reading on fascism and racism and Nazism, on how you refuse to accept that the others are human beings in order to be able to torture and kill them."

McGrady's Catholic high school was "oppressive," he says: the brothers used to beat them. But the art classes were rigorous, exposing him to different periods in art history. It was then he became interested in expressionism, and he still counts Otto Dix and Max Beckmann as key influences--"I wanted to do what they did, but applied to my situation." He attended art school in England and for the first time had contact with the British upper classes. His painting became increasingly political; Goya was a big influence by the time he graduated.

McGrady moved to Chicago in 1996 for graduate study at the School of the Art Institute, and his experiences here further politicized him. Living in Hyde Park, he says, "I became aware of how racially divided the city is. I was on the Cottage Grove bus when it got shot at one night with automatic weapons fire. The other passengers were on the floor before I was--ironic, because where I grew up you were expecting to hear gunfire any minute. Students in Hyde Park talked about how the area was rough because it was mostly black, but no one was talking about class or poverty." He also found U.S. culture dehumanizing. "Where I grew up, there's a very strong sense of community, that you're not on your own. You can go to your local bank and talk to the manager about a loan. In Chicago the faceless bureaucracy, the process of becoming a foreign student, was almost Kafkaesque."

McGrady married an American in 2001, and the following year they moved to New York. He says the diversity of American culture offered him encounters with Bosnian, Palestinian, and Armenian immigrants, who helped him see that power conflicts and oppression are ubiquitous.

Conor McGrady

When: Through 8/19

Where: Thomas Robertello, 939 W. Randolph

Info: 312-421-1587

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