The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue

Tom McGlynn: At Present

Tom McGlynn, <em>Stack 1</em>, 2019. Acrylic on birch panel, 48 x 48 inches. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art.
Tom McGlynn, Stack 1, 2019. Acrylic on birch panel, 48 x 48 inches. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art.

On View
Rick Wester Fine Art
New York

At Present, Tom McGlynn’s second solo exhibition at Rick Wester Fine Art, is both complex and commonplace, familiar and unnerving. The gallery space, a white chamber in which a multitude of colors shelter together in monochromatic fields, becomes a site of purely perceptual exchanges between viewer and painted surface. These exchanges question the relationship between artist intent and viewer response, positioning the artwork as a catalyst for this dialogue. Made up of 16 new acrylic paintings on birch panel, the exhibition continues McGlynn’s formalist approach to painting, developing a practice that ultimately functions as a semiotics of abstraction.

Each painting features an array of colors painted, with meditative brushstrokes, in floating bands and blocks that never touch but are nonetheless cohesive. At times the colors pop, contrast, or vibrate off one another, while at others they recede or neutrally cohabit the pictorial space. Paintings form relationships with one another on the wall just as the colors form relationships on the surface of the painted birch panel. The works contain seemingly straightforward references to Modernist tendencies, from Piet Mondrian’s De Stijl or John McLaughlin’s American “abstract classicists” to color field and grid paintings like those by Stanley Whitney. Unlike these artists, however, McGlynn’s paintings are informed by the indigestible mass communications environment we inhabit, and so they are inherently engaged with the phenomenal reality of a contemporary age of information saturation.

Tom McGlynn, Double Unbound, 2019. Acrylic on birch panel, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art.

For several years, McGlynn has worked through deconstruction: he extracts colors from the visible world and formulates them into a lexicon of abstracted shapes. In this way, the artist has created a perceptual model that involves transformation from one kind of stimulus to another, with himself as a conduit in what Umberto Eco has called communication chains.1 In Double Unbound (2019), bands of white, teal, and red hovering together on the left side of the painting, confront, on the right, a cluster in black, purple, and orange, none of which appear to line up. The viewer takes them as they are: a pair of triads, each band related to its opposite number: white/black, teal/purple, red/orange. McGlynn sets up a perceptual discourse that can only take place in the present as an encounter of the real.

In previous series, McGlynn sourced material from company logos and architectural patterns found out in the world. In this exhibition, however, he has shifted his source material to several paintings by old masters that he experienced at Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Through his process, McGlynn has distilled the palettes of paintings by Francisco de Goya and Rogier van der Weyden, among others, to chromatic sets that embody the essences of these master’s works. This transformation from one phenomenological field to another—from those of these masters to McGlynn’s own—further abstracts the process of communication. McGlynn creates what the artist calls “subjective partitions” that ultimately function as a screen between the artists and the viewer.2 We have been trained to gather a message from the image, to learn or to have an experience with the art object. However, as Eco writes, “the Receiver transforms the Signal into Message, but this message is still the empty form to which the Addressee can attribute various meanings depending on the Code he applies to it.”3 McGlynn’s work stops this flow and forces awareness of the present. Standing before these works, the eye sees the interaction of color and the incongruity of shapes made by conscious brushstrokes. They evoke paintings of the past, but they are anchored to the concrete reality of the now, the very moment of looking.

Tom McGlynn, Control Group 3, 2019. Acrylic on birch panel, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art.

Each painting is a plane of shapes and colors that does not fully communicate beyond formal relationships. The interaction between these compositional elements resonates in a visible field. So they are independent but related, together but apart. The increasing complexity of McGlynn’s source material raises questions surrounding the nature of each work, as do their titles. Double Unbound, Single Unbound , Stack 1 , and Stack 2 (all 2019) all point to the existence of groupings within each painting. Yet the titles often produce less straightforward double meanings as well: Control Group, Target Audience , and Focus Group (all 2019) are characteristic examples. In Control Group 3, six colors are grouped in a white field. The colors can be divided into cool and warm tones, and in themselves present a kind of controlled group of contiguous colors. Yet the title—referring to the small collection of people by which an experiment or product is measured—points to a communications environment that has, in the words of Umberto Eco, “been transformed into a heavy industry.”4 McGlynn’s titles suggest the way experiments and strategies are categorized, treated, and packaged by corporations and institutions, often to convince, incite, sway, or pacify an audience. The reading of the work along with the title imbues it with an unnerving substructure, one which recalls McGlynn’s previous methods of appropriating from major corporations and political aesthetics.

With his new approach, McGlynn is slowly moving towards a “continuum of transformations” where each painting becomes antipodal, like planes inserted perpendicular to the unidirectional flow of time.5 In these planes, obfuscation and reality intermix, leaving subjective forms that, like the great phenomenologists once did, work towards a point of pure essence. In this way, the paintings become color signals, concise and loaded, blinking indicators in the intense field of communicative noise that masks the sinister codes of institutional and corporate power. And from this, perhaps, McGlynn provides a new method of approach: to remake in our own image the codes that dominate the semiotic and photographic universe. We must continue to invent radical tactics by which to bring ourselves back to the present, the physical, and the essence of being.

  1. Umberto Eco, “Towards a Semiological Guerilla Warfare,” Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 138. “The communication chain assumes a Source that, through a Transmitter [McGlynn], emits a Signal [his painting] via a Channel [exhibition/gallery/art world].”
  2. Tom McGlynn, “McLuhan's Photographic Gestalt (and the Project of the Object World),” Imaginations, December 6, 2017.
  3. Eco, “Guerilla Warfare,” 139.
  4. Ibid., 135.
  5. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 256.


Colin Edgington

Colin Edgington is a writer, editor, and visual artist originally from New Mexico, USA.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues