Bryan McFarlane’s Invented Worlds – by Lowery Stokes Sims

Bryan McFarlane’s Invented Worlds

In 2005 Elizabeth Sussman, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, organized Remote Viewing an exhibition of a artists whose work existed between abstraction and narration. This exhibition included the work of Carroll Dunham, Terry Winters and Julie Mehretu—two generations of artists whose work shared an abstract vocabulary of an organic, biomorphic nature that was stamped with the individual signature of each artist. In their hands this vocabulary has been grafted onto very contemporary idioms including the exclamatory visuals of cartoon imagery, and the distillation of data from scientific and technological and mass media sources. As Sussman noted this provides a new currency for “painting and drawing, as they go about their two-way process of filtering representation and abstraction to register the mind in the hand. The result is the creation of new worlds that “are a means of controlling information, opening it to both precision and chaos.”[1]

Bryan McFarlane is clearly a cohort in this 21st century abstraction. His canvases populated with mysterious amebic disks and, fanned arcs, and elusive shapes that in some stances coalesce into references to bicycle part (wheels, handle bars, seats) or eggs. We can also find tables, ladders, floral flourishes, carts, race card and even lighting fixture. These all exist and even float in variable space where no Newtonian laws function. These spaces are vast, opaque and [liquid] and find their counterpart particularly in Terry Winter’s “multidirectional thought” where “patterns…complicate legibility where figural readings, are implicated’.”[2] This allows McFarlane to seamlessly traverse the worlds of abstraction and figuration and to convey the “multidirectional” aspects of his personal and cultural references within this mode of abstraction.

At times the disk-like egg shapes float in an aqueous ambiance, one edge more legible and in focus than another in a continuous in-and-out-and amid movement within that ambiance. At other times the elements assert their forms and identity and offer highly symbolic iconographic readings. How do we contextualize those bicycle elements, eggs, lighting, tables and still life elements, classical Greek columns, arched stain glass windows and mysterious statuary? The artist himself provides a context for these elements noting in 2008 how his travels have informed his artistic vision. In particular China clarified for him the connection between cultural elements he experienced there—specifically bicycles and eggs—and those he experienced through his contact with Chinese descendents who have impacted the culture of his native Jamaica.[3]

This transnational perspective demonstrates how McFarlane’s paintings are as universal as they are culturally specific. For as much as they convey the commonalities of human physical and metaphysical existence they occasionally remind us of the specificity of McFarlane’s own experiences. We can postulate that his use of color is specific to his eye, his experience, his joie de vivre. Can we see in them the multicolor exuberance that would be mark a Jamaican Mas event? Do the lush vegetation and the impossibly clear turquoise water of the region insert their particular aesthetic feel into these compositions? Are they the remnants of nostalgic longing and acknowledgement on the part of a native son exiled by opportunity and economics in a more frigid and, relatively speaking subdued locale such as New England?

The subtitle of the Remote Vision exhibition was “Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing,” although it was clear that the vocabulary in the work of these artists was not the invention of these artists. It’s syntactical roots reached by into the dawn of modernism with the biomorphism of Surrealism so evocative at once of the subconscious guidance of the hand in the doodle while at the same time of the aqueous environments that were used to depict the mysterious, microcosmic world of the human brain while at the same time the macrocosmic character of the universe. This extraordinary existential reach was the particular province of Roberto Matta whose inscapes of the late 1930s and early 1940s introduced a new means to capture the workings of the subconscious and the marvelous in his paintings known as “Inscapes.” His work offers an interesting point of reference for McFarlane’s. In addition to his aqueous compositions such as where he evoked the macrocosmic in the microcosmic, his work also featured dramatically defined spaces where furniture and figures enacted dramas that referenced and presaged the dystopian world where architectural elements and furniture asserted hierarchy and intimated terror and dysfunction.

McFarlane’s iconography is clearly more optimistic. That is to be expected from an artist who identifies with the expanding art world that is emerging in the context of the 21st cultural and economic developments world-wide. As Edmund Barry Gaither observes, “[McFarlane’s] work is interested in issues without being determined by issues. It seeks to simultaneously examine critical socio-political questions…while evolving a formal vocabulary and a suite of aesthetic considerations that together constitute a powerfully expressive visual language.”[4]


Lowery Stokes Sims

Curator, Museum of Arts and Design, NYC

June, 2010

(Former Curator at MOMA, NYC.)

[1] Elisabeth Sussman, Remote Viewing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing), with essays by Caroline A. Jones and Katy Siegel, a story by Ben Marcus and contributions by Tina Kukielski and Elizabeth M. Grady. ( New York: Whitney Museum of American Art with H. N Abrams, Inc. New York, 2005), 13.

[2] Ibid, 73-74.

[3] Bicycles, Pyramids and Egg: Axis of  a Circular Journey,, texts by Wu DongDong, Edmund Barry Gaither, Ambassador Wayne McCook, and Bryan MacFarlane. (Beijing: Ferry International Art Center, 2008).

[4] Ibid. 4.