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The Dystopian Aesthetic in Lisa Adams’ and Kelly McLane's Paintings

Lisa Adams, Borderland, 2015. Oil on canvas over panel 60 x 144” (2 panels)

Unreality: Works by Lisa Adams & Kelly McLane

Curated by Kirk Pedersen

Santa Monica College, Pete & Susan Barrett Art Gallery

February 18 - March 28, 2020

By LITA BARRIE, March 2020

This joint exhibition draws parallels between Lisa Adams’ and Kelly McLane's darkly whimsical paintings of discombobulated worlds. Their post-apocalyptic visions of flood water, polluted skies, black moons, and collapsed architecture have an otherworldly dystopian beauty. Nature reigns supreme, after man-made civilization has collapsed, leaving only a few remnants of human presence like graffiti, bullet holes, shoes and American flags.    

Nothing is quite what it appears to be in their fictitious worlds, leaving the viewer to question what has gone wrong. Both Adams and McLane play with quirky anomalies much like filmmaker Tim Burton. They depict discontinuous events like still cinematic images from a pan shot. Their disrupted narratives make no logical sense because they are visualizations of the edge of madness.

Kelly McLane, Budfish, 2017. Oil, acrylic and graphite on panel with wood cutting and burning, 72 x 78”

In these melancholic paintings, a glimpse of beauty can signify hope amidst the despair of a world that has fallen apart. In Adams’ paintings, a solitary purple anemone, gigantic yellow daises, milkweed in a bereft cityscape, or a mysterious reflection of overgrown weeds against the background of an orange burnt sky are signifiers of joy. In McLane’s paintings, the renewal of natural beauty suggests that only nature will survive after human civilization self-destructs by mistakenly viewing itself as the center of everything. 

Both Adams and McLane blur the lines between representation and abstraction, landscape and still life, fairy tale and surrealist imagery in hybrid works that defy categorization. The exhibition includes twenty-three paintings and drawings which provide an opportunity to see how skillfully these two uncompromising artists use color, composition and recurring leitmotifs to develop a distinctive lexicon. Adams uses rendering, scribbling and blending to move paint in different directions, employing her signature palette of jewel-like pinks, yellows, turquoises, and blood-oranges. Kelly is a master draftsperson and blends delicate pencil lines and fine brushwork to create apparition-like elements, employing her signature palette of washed-out colors which seem to fade in and out like hallucinations. Adams uses technological tools to distort her imagery whereas McLane gouges into her work in a more physical, violent way.

Kelly McLane, Birds Born Blind, 2017. Oil, acrylic, and graphite on panel with wood cutting and burning, 72 x 72”

Adams’ paintings are often situated at land’s end where borders between land, sea and sky are unclear. In her monumental Borderland (2015), an observer looks through binoculars but we do not know what he is searching for. A battered swan decoy is a startling anomaly because swans usually symbolize idyllic scenes. A beam of light from an unknown source recalls a helicopter searching for danger. In McLane’s Bird Born Blind (2017) a parakeet survives an environmental disaster in which a grotesque headless girl is trapped in a net and the ghosts of goofy clowns haunt a flooded aftermath where a broken stairway leads nowhere. McLane often uses glistening turquoise flood waters to symbolize purification by natural elements that overpower the toxic machismo of peckerwood culture.

Adams and McLane walk their own path and clearly enjoy doing what they are not supposed to do. Even when depicting end times, these badass artists cannot suppress their passion for painting which makes incomprehensible feelings tangible. WM

Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

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