Ellie Lee-Duncan – 3 February, 2017
McClure's work, by dint of the conventions of hair, masks, costumes and insignia, at first seem to offer a utopian promise; but this signifier is severed from their evidential physical unfitness for duty and action. Previously superheroes were marketed to, and appealed strongly to, the many who felt a sense of inadequacy, disenfranchisement, helplessness or dissatisfaction with the status quo. Through the flicking over of pages and frames was promised secularised justice, morality and the active restoration of ideals.
A series of paintings by Craig McClure
5 November - 20 December 2016
A splash of bright pink, dissipating into visceral globules, provides the background for Atlas. Craig McClure’s series of paintings are monochromatic, and their strong linear elements vibrate against the magenta wall. Atlas comprises of 26 works in ink and paint on wood; crisp and sharp lines bordering washes of grey.
These lush black outlines surround the largest superhero characters in a graphic comic book style, making them appear solidly unbreakable. Garbed in capes and masks, these figures are hunched, afflicted and warped, leaning over their paunches, jowls loose. Conversely, other abstracted or secondary figures are painted in softer, uneven lines, and appear crumpled and sagging. As working or subaltern characters, they melt into further undefined lumps. They exist caught in pointless gestures, under the gaze of the looming heroes. Lacking limbs and faces, their power to act or speak is silenced.
There are several large paintings, punctuated by smaller, more abstract works. They dissipate our gaze, our eyes skipping from rectangle to rectangle attempting to read all works cohesively, as when we scan the frames of a graphic novel. Although these are individual works, the comic book style and layout tempts us to read them as connected, a singular narrative. However the ambiguity of the characters and their actions resist this. We are caught between the rich interiority of the world within each painting, and the wider plot outside that we, by turns, desire to inscribe onto all the images.
In one work, the figure of a ‘hero’ stoops over a walking cane, despite the mask that obscures his face and the insignia on his chest. He occupies a cavern with stalactites dripping down like gangrenous fingers. Several figures complete seemingly arbitrary tasks, hammering rough stakes into the ground. The hero-like figure holds out a hand, literally offering beans to one of these workers. Though the workers are faceless, some wearing balaclavas, there is no sense of a fixed identity behind their masks. To their leader, and the viewer it seems, disclosing or defining their identity is unnecessary. They work uninterrupted. Their use value is solely their productivity.
McClure’s works are created through the use of layering disparate groups of figures or elements together. Generally he works on paper to create the figures individually, and then brings them all into the finished works on wood by either repainting them, or directly collaging the preparatory sketches onto the surface. Combined with heavy outlining, the figures become crisply black and white. Areas of shaded grey washes and wet on wet brushwork then frame them, providing a sense of depth. Although primarily monochromatic, there are several softer touches of washed Prussian blue. His favoured media of India ink, Flashe paint and Cel-Vinyl acrylic, combined with illustration techniques, assist to create the thick, buttery and flat finish of his works’ clean cut aesthetic.
The superheroes of my childhood were confident figures. They were garbed in power, influence, and more muscles than was anatomically possible. Their body mass and general charisma were barely contained in their delicious Lycra bodysuits. Muscled bodies became the reductive, ocularcentric mode of displaying their virtues. Consistently active, superheroes utilised their apex of hyper masculinity in order to rescue powerless individuals. Their extraordinary powers were often an exaggeration of traditionally conflated and idealised masculine attributes: strength, stamina, and solving problems through brute force (blundering rather than via reconciliation).
However, the self was always multiplicitous. Their primary value was placed upon their body as a tool to utilise strength, detached from their emotional capacity. Alter egos were internally layered aspects of character, like a gummily soft raw egg under its outer shell. Superhero masculinity maintains this divide between an active, self-possessed, confident and strong individual - and their alter ego, that mundane life of the man behind the mask, the anathema of passive, weaker, socially uncertain individuals. Their ability to work and their domestic or emotional life was conveniently segregated into a sort of strength-active (conventionally considered ‘male’), weakness-passive (conventionally considered ‘female’) binary.
Thwarted seduction is the key here. The superhero’s attractiveness is undermined by their inadequate alter ego, which is continually revealed to be hopeless in attracting romantic or sexual interest. Regardless of their coexistence within a singular person, these characteristics are bifurcated, creating a repeatable dichotomy. Superheroes are written about as riddled with self-doubt, depression, anxiety and gender-subversive tendencies (for example, some characters sew their own costumes). But again, in popular consciousness and commodification, their image is reductive, a one sided, sleek, manly machine. One specific kind of heterosexual masculinity was idealised, and so a specific mode of gendered behaviour was elevated as well, marketed alongside cereal box figurines to a generation of young boys.
McClure’s work, by dint of the conventions of hair, masks, costumes and insignia, at first seem to offer a utopian promise; but this signifier is severed from their evidential physical unfitness for duty and action. Previously superheroes were marketed to, and appealed strongly to, the many who felt a sense of inadequacy, disenfranchisement, helplessness or dissatisfaction with the status quo. Through the flicking over of pages and frames was promised secularised justice, morality and the active restoration of ideals. However, rather than socialist, almost divine figures, these individuals are disturbingly exploitative, power hungry, and unjust. They reverse this image of power. McClure’s figures within Atlas are memorable for their looming, globby viscerality. They still occupy positions of authority within the world of the image, but seem to be entrenched in their own self-serving malicious endeavours. While it is difficult to pinpoint any specific action, they give the overwhelming sense of being sinister, and this gives McClure’s paintings an uncanny weight.
McClure’s images draw attention to the inner reality of human characters. He presents us with an unresolved image of power that we cannot put confidence in. There is no simple moral code; everyone is prey to their abusive tendencies. Their physical and ethical inadequacies are evident, and the protagonists seem unlikely to muster the ability or altruism to leap buildings in a single bound - or even to pay their taxes. They do not appear to be supervillains though - yet, as hero-like figures, they have outgrown their uniforms and emotional resources.
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