Unpublished, and not edited; written March/April 1978
by Wade Saunders —
Ed McGowin is a fabulist. He tells stories, maybe lies. Country Western Narrative is his eighth large-scale installation of a living space. In it he combines paintings, sculpture and a song. The song will be the prologue to an opera he is writing for the Denver Museum. The separate parts mesh together to tell a story, and moreover, each element refers to the compressions and distortions inherent in narration.
Eight shaped, airbrushed ink paintings hang on the wall. Their galvanized steel frames, all different, are silhouettes of objects common to country and western songs: hat, bed, chair, table, car, lamp, bottle, and boot. These shapes and that of a water glass are reduced in size and punched into the surfaces of a shiny metal structure to make windows. The structure suggests a two-or-three-story frame house with additions, but it is disproportionately high to be strictly representational. It functions both as a sculpture and as a model house. You can see into the house by looking through the tiny windows, which are glazed with red plastic, but no window offers a complete view.
A fabricated metal chair dominates the cramped, brightly lit interior. Snapshot-size, silk-screened aluminum rectangles bearing McGowin’s profile—the attaching rivet forming his eye—cover the chair like scales. Standing wine bottles carpet the floor. Flat cast aluminum versions of the painting frames sit on shelves protruding from the walls. There is no cast table; there are a water glass and a pistol. The sculptures are larger than the windows, about the size of paperbacks. An original country and western song plays through a set of headphones hanging near the house. The song refers to an almost empty house, to a car and a television, to wine and wine bottles.
McGowin sees events as giving places particular energies: a room in which we know a child was bludgeoned to death will be felt differently than one in which no such thing occurred. He starts to establish the differing auras of his tableaux by the ways he disposes the chosen objects. But he goes further, because he feels that the energy of a place can best be and perhaps can only be conveyed subliminally. To this end he involves us in the pieces by making us exert ourselves to see them. In the past he has made us see things reflected off distorting, inverting, or foreshortening mirrors; made us look through scrims, look through tinted glass, look while being menaced by a dog; made us kneel to see, or look from a taxing distance. We become his accomplices.
This strategy is necessary because of the differences between our daily lives and our visit to his show. In private life we can understand things gradually by staying in a place and observing:
Bobby D. found this house just as I described it and decided that he would move into it, and make that his home. He discovered the history of the house, and he understood who had lived there before, and what had gone on before, by living in the house and noticing the things that were there and understanding why they were there.1
McGowin pushes things along because his tableaux are not a continuing part of our lives. We won’t sit around for years or even an hour looking and thinking.
In some pieces he adds texts to help us assemble the parts. The texts themselves are distanced; they are never neatly printed near the sculpture. In a recent piece shown in Houston things were written on the inside walls of a house in various colored paints. The writings were visible through tinted windows, but when the hue of the writing matched that of the window, the writing was imperceptible. You had to make a circuit of the house just to “see” all the writing. One piece in True Stories, a tabloid magazine McGowin designed as a catalog for his show of that
title, concerns the act of writing:
And there were the letters that the blind boy wrote but never sent. His sister taught him how to write by making letters in the dirt, and he could trace with his fingers and feel the words. And he’d feel the graphite marks on the paper to know what he had written.2
We have to feel our way to make sense of the work. We understand the pieces the way the blind boy understood writing.
Red light glows from the windows of the house in “Country Western Narrative.” The house seems warm, inviting. But that suggested security vanishes when we peer inside the sculpture. The interior looks satanic. It is hard, absolutely sterile, and cold despite the light. The enclosed sculptures are flattened, unsettling. The crumpled and riveted faces disturb us. Nothing is real but the wine bottles. We turn to the song and to the paintings for elucidation: what is the story of the house and why should it menace us so?
The song relies on and exploits the conventions of country and western music. Country and western songs are mass fictions about a simpler life. They are the most narrative songs in our culture. Their lyrics are fiercely regional. Everything is located in geography: where one was raised, where one lives, where one visits. The music espouses values. Parents, the family home, and hard work are revered; alcohol, adultery, and city life are primary temptations. The signs and the singing style have been codified. Particular things are freighted with meaning and function metonymically: bars, bottles, jukeboxes, neon lights and pay phones; cowboy boots, hats and guitars; home; installment loans; motels; pistols and prison; pick-ups, semis, and cb’s. McGowin’s song exploits these already established metonymies.
The song is funny for its complete inversion of the code. In the song a father warns his children to leave the house for their own good. Neither father nor grandfather know about money, time, working, living, happiness, they just know about wine. Wine is the legacy he was left and the one he wants not to leave. The parents not the children are seen as weak and their problems originate in the country not the city. The words working, house, bills, wine are used idiomatically, but used counter to the tradition. Work is a drag, the house is a source of anguish, bills go unpaid and children are raised with bottles as their only toys. Under its pleasing aural surface the song reinforces the ambiguity and threat present in the house.
The house and song fit together but don’t make a whole. The paintings and their shaped frames complete the work by showing us the life that was lived in the house and that may continue to be lived. Four things are noteworthy about the paintings: they are shaped, they are of interiors, they are loaded with shadows, and the subject matter of each is related to its framing shape. They are keys specifically made to open the house, the pieces that more nearly complete the puzzle, and the windows into the sculpture.
As noted the frames are silhouettes of objects, some obvious some not. If asked to draw a car, bottle, or boot one would most likely come up with a shape like McGowin’s. Space hasn’t really been compressed, in them because they were viewed in profile. But the bed, chair, and table are seen in three-quarter view, so that they have to be compressed into two dimensions. They squeeze down awkwardly. The metal permits no tonal foreshortening; their legs are very short and look bulky. The more obvious frames help us recognize these more difficult ones. The collapsing of space that the frames embody suggests the collapsing of real events that the tableau represents.
The subject matter of the paintings is the domestic history of the original house. In the paintings we are shown a birthday cake, a corner where a baseboard meets an open door frame, a chair covered with clothes, a table and bottle, a floor and mirror, a half-full water glass, a window and floor, a cane. These views and objects are expected. A birthday is celebrated, someone hangs clothes on a chair when undressing and a glass rests on a night table. But that psychological security is not really in accord with the sculpture or with the song. So we look again.
In each painting there is a hint of strangeness. An external force—usually embodied as a shadow—unsettles them. The candles of the cake are seen at the instant they are being blown out; the shadow of the clothing-covered chair forms a man’s profile; the shadow of a bull terrier is projected through the open door; the bottle on the table flies off toward the wall, rushing to join its shadow. These shadows activate the interior views. Though not explicitly malevolent, the paintings are neither tranquil nor reassuring.
The different elements of the installation now become metaphors for different kinds of apprehension. We begin to know things that we don’t see, begin to believe things contrary to what common sense suggests, begin to respond subliminally. McGowin wrote apropos a mirror:
Inside are some things left by a blind boy who had lived there once. There’s a stick that was smoothed by his hand and an old mirror that fascinated him; this mirror fascinated the blind boy. He had been told by his sister once what a mirror was for; she described it to him. So he’d stand in front of it and he’d touch it to see himself. And he thought the way he looked was the way the mirror felt. He liked the way it made him look. He didn’t want to clean it because he didn’t want to change the way he looked.3
We trust our senses the way the blind boy trusts the feel of his mirror. McGowin uses the shadows to question our seeing and suggest it may be like the blind boy’s.
Shadows are, like painting, a kind of mapping, a way of projecting three dimensions down into two. The implication in these paintings is that such projection, such recording, may disclose things not visible on the surface. The paintings become x-rays revealing things real but not normally seen, They tell us about the sickness of the house, about the course of its complaint.
The pictures were painted to fit their frames and are informed by their shapes. For instance, the painting inside the bed shape is imagined to be seen from the bed: we lie there waiting for the dog to come around the corner. Whiskey brings on stares and visions, so the bottle frame encloses a window. But a head ominously blocks a portion of the window’s shadow that is projected on the floor. The boot, a symbol of robustness and mobility, encloses a painting of a cane. The image contradicts the assertion of its frame. This formal tension vitalizes the work.
What finally is impressive about “Country Western Narrative” is the amount of narration that McGowin is able to embody without recourse to sequential drawings, dominating text, real objects, or any human presence, We know things without being told. The manse is past salvaging. The past prevents the present. The future is elsewhere. The wait is best endured in a stupor. The story is put across by the particular way things are built, drawn and framed more than by the chosen images. It is McGowin’s ability to play in several registers that makes his work so engage us.
Brooks Jackson Gallery Iolas, March 14-April 8, 1978
The Institute For Art and Urban Resources at P.S. 1,
April 16-May 21, 1978. (A different house.)
- Ed McGowin, True Stories, Washington, D.C., 1975, P. 27.