It was the in-between visual states and contrasts of dark and light, as well as my curiosity about the links between the paintings’ subject matter and the artist’s biography, that prompted me to visit the exhibition Siobhan McBride: Never Means Always Not, at Another Gallery (December 16, 2022–January 8, 2023), curated by Stavroula Coulianidis. As if to reinforce my sense that the work was about change and feeling out of sync with one’s surroundings, I learned that on January 1, 2023, the gallery had changed its name to Long Story Short NYC.
While I deduced that McBride’s paintings were based on photographs, they are not photorealist. In fact, spatially they appear very different than most photo-based realist paintings, which tend to flatten the scene. The barriers and the space beyond them, along with the nearly enclosed spaces in each of her paintings, seem to be central to their subject matter. Although I first looked at the works on my computer, other aspects I found intriguing were the interplay between flat areas of color and three-dimensional space, the odd evening or artificial light, and her interest in solid and transparent surfaces, reflection and form, and sharp-edged silhouettes. According to the press release, “Siobhan McBride was born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted to Queens, NY, as an infant” and some of the work had to do with “searching for her biological identity in Korea.” Together with the formal elements, these different pieces of information made me want to discover whether the 12 mid-sized paintings in the exhibition were as interesting as I intuited. I quickly saw that it was.
McBride works in acrylic gouache, matte acrylics, paint marker, and colored pencils on paper mounted on pencil. The paintings are full of off-kilter details, resulting from her use of simple abstract shapes, mostly rectangles, in ways that are not immediately readable. She depicts spaces as partially enclosed and blocked, and on some level unknowable, which are combined with abstract silhouettes with intricate edges that read as an oddly lit aerial view of a tree’s leaves in “Lantern Fly Graveyard,” for example, or as crisp, ominous shadows cast by architectural details in “Jongno-gu Night Walk” (both 2022). The views are mysterious and even unsettling.
McBride told me that she photographed the uninhabited apartment interiors, largely empty city streets, and arcade games she portrays in her work. While the attention to detail and surface held this viewer’s attention, what makes the work as a whole more interesting than its different features is McBride’s interest in the ambiguity, suggestibility, and elusiveness of everyday life: the various kinds of light that coexist on a city street in the late evening or at night, the view through an apartment or car window, and the reflections on their surfaces.
More broadly, McBride appears to be exploring how to make something fresh out of the familiar without resorting to the usual bag of tricks, such as exaggerated details, unrealistic color palettes, or surrealist juxtaposition. She incorporates details based on observation that cannot instantly be deciphered, which interrupts our ability to perceive everything smoothly. That resistance is what I like about the paintings.
In “Canopy” (2021), we are looking out a window in a well-lit house with a large, snow-covered black tree in front of it. Parts of the painting, such as a glowing window on the building’s second story, include details that exist just on the other side of legibility, while the house’s upper and lower sides are flat and solidly colored. The dark, intricate silhouettes on the white, slightly gradated area beneath the left side of the tree can be seen as shadows on snow, but no shadows appear on the right side of the tree. How do we understand what appears to be a discrepancy here? Or in other places, where something seen through a window seems to transform into a reflection? That ambiguity kept me looking. What could have easily become a cliché view — a house with a snow-filled tree in front of it — became something else. That is no small feat.
“Five Doors” (2022) is composed as if someone is sitting beside a bathroom sink, looking through the doorway into part of a hallway where two more doors, one open and the other closed, are visible. We are looking at a passageway, a space we might not otherwise pay attention to. An orange bath towel hangs along the painting’s right edge. Behind the cropped cabinet and sink, extending in at a sharp angle, and a wicker hamper is an open closet with shelves. Does this also have a door, which would explain the painting’s title? Why is a rubber mat on the floor just outside the bathroom? The view is vapid, odd, familiar — something we might not think twice about, even if we see it every day. The longer I looked at the painting, the more it raised questions for me, which is an unusual direction to take for a painter of everyday life.
“Makgeolli Snack Run” (2022) shows a neighborhood street in Seoul at night. As in “Five Doors,” viewers are pulled into a space that is both open and closed, accessible and inaccessible. However, instead of pairing a closed and open door, she depicts a narrow, slightly inclined street receding into a dark space, with a dark four-story building at the end. One lit window illuminates this modestly sized apartment building from within. A gradient band of light from an unseen source runs beneath the building. This street feels remote but it may be a possible destination. The two large fans jutting in from the painting’s lower right edge suggest that we are leaving a street-level establishment.
McBride portrays views we see in passing, through the car window on a rainy day (“Deluge,” 2022), while daydreaming (“Lantern Fly Graveyard,” 2022), or while focused on other activities (such as the arcade game in “Love Locks and Cable Cars,” 2022). They are the stuff of one person’s life, a chronicle of moments at once ordinary and meaningful. Each displays a particular attention to the light or darkness, the colors that define the subject matter. Everything seems as if it has been seen for the first time. In the abstract details and sudden shifts that resist translation, the artist conveys a feeling of displacement and discomfort as much a part of the scene as the sidewalk or building.
Siobhan McBride: Never Means Always Not continues at Long Story Short NYC (52 Henry Street, Two Bridges, Manhattan) through January 8. The exhibition was curated by Stavroula Coulianidis.