“Oil, Then Acrylic,” the title for Jameson Magrogan’s solo show at Transformer, violates one of the prime directives in painting. Acrylic does not bond to oil, so the order for mixed-media painting is in fact the reverse: Acrylic goes first. Unless Magrogan is referring here to a hierarchy in art, an older code among the gentry that dictates that oil comes before acrylic, categorically.
Those were a few of the themes that came up in conversation during a boisterous opening for Magrogan’s show, a party atmosphere that featured beer by the can in place of white wine and punk rock in lieu of air kisses. This is a show about breaking the rules, it’s plain. And yet his paintings tease out another question that has lingered over painting for a century: Can an artist defy the rules if he hasn’t mastered them?
Magrogan, a recent graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, takes issue with the forms and factors that give rise to value in art. For “My Buddy, Mr. Goldenstein,” the painting is a sculpture, of sorts, placed on a makeshift pedestal. That way you know it’s art, the artist seems to be saying. The objet d’art in this case is presented like a closed book, a painted case or box that invites closer scrutiny. It would make sense if Magrogan were referencing the artist Jack Goldstein, a conceptualist who once buried himself alive before adopting a buyer-friendly “salon” painting style in the heady 1980s art market.
“My Definite Chief Aim” might reference the worlds of architecture and high design (another field where value is a fraught question). The initials “S, M, L, XL,” which are scrawled on the painting, correspond with the title of the seminal 1995 book by Rem Koolhaas, and the primary object depicted in the painting might be some kind of angular building. Part of the work of investigating Magrogan’s paintings is tracing his references, discovering what he’s objecting to and what he’s adopting, which is often the case with recent painting graduates who make paintings about paintings. I like “Green & Blue,” a sweeping hieroglyph of color, for being less stiff in this regard.
For “Telestrator,” Magrogan paints “1st” over an interior scene: the painting is placed nearly on the ground, propped up by a few plastic trophies. “How to Build a Trophy Horse; A Painting” is a small square oil painting of an outline of a horse applied directly to linen, a staining strategy favored by the Washington Color School artists (this is nothing like a Color School painting, though). There’s a medal ribbon affixed to the piece, and there was also a straw handle of some sort that could be used to ride this pony (it came apart during the opening, apparently).
What’s surprising is that there isn’t more subversive activity in the show. For all his provocations, Magrogan’s solo show is au courant. Works in “Oil, Then Acrylic” would fit reasonably well in any painting survey of the last few years that critics might describe as casualist. This broad trend rejects the austerity of formalism and minimalism, favors traditional subjects and themes, and takes an agnostic approach to process and materials. And isn’t that Magrogan, insisting on traditional painting while disregarding tradition?
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