Alicia McCarthy at Rare
"Nobody's Home," Alicia McCarthy, 1999.
"Man, I can't work in studio 103 with Alicia screaming in the halls all the time," Kim Halley used to say, back at SFAI in the early 90's. I suppose it's a measure of how inured we were to general chaos and mayhem that I hadn't particularly noticed Alicia screaming. I rarely heard her say anything. If I thought about the screaming I guessed she had some tension to release, or something. Well, didn't we all. Screaming was what it was all about, one way or another, back then.
At SFAI I didn't particularly understand Alicia's paintings. She painted horses and boats and other things that third graders like to draw, the way a third grader would draw them, on grungy pieces of doorskin, in flat, drippy, dun-colored housepaint. For me they didn't resonate; I was passionately in pursuit of the luminous and the exquisite, while it seemed that Alicia and her cronies were equally passionately committed to the flat and the slap-happy. I respected her, of course. It wasn't possible not to. She obviously meant it.
"Have you seen Alicia's painting on the terrace?" asked Kristin Calabrese. "It's amazing. It's empty. I mean, really really empty." Empty like Zen; empty waiting to be filled, enigmatic. Alicia and her friends often worked in pairs or in groups, graffiti'ing construction sites around town, painting on each other's paintings. She and Ruby Neri did a Diego Rivera Gallery show where you couldn't tell who painted what. Looking at it I was overwhelmed by longing, for such courage and such comfort, such lack of neurosis, that two people could share a studio and a gallery, drip all over each other's paintings, and not kill one another. It was like watching a litter of puppies, sleeping in a pile, knawing on one another's ears, never knowing loneliness. Most artists are way, way too uptight to work like that.
I have come to believe, over the years, that painting is about creating a particular set of vibrations. Every artist has a signature frequency, some wavelength or combination of wavelengths within which their work resonates; this, I believe, is one of the ways the subconscious mind identifies the work of a Rembrandt or a poseur, a real Van Gogh or a fake Basquiat. Art experts can analyze brushwork and mediums, use X-rays and carbon dating to identify the work of a master or a fraud, but the aggregate wavelengths of a piece of art are what makes it sing, or scream, or lie there where it fell with a thud. Different people resonate with different types of art. If the vibrations between people and paintings are too disparate, however, very little communication is possible.
It was obvious, back in San Francisco in the early 90ās, that there were a number of inspired artists all hitting very similar frequencies--notably Barry McGee, lovely Margaret Kilgallen, Ruby Neri, Alicia McCarthy and Kane Ellen. They sometimes used words, in graffiti or on paintings, but they didn't usually communicate in English. You either spoke their language or you didn't. I remember Alicia putting up some paintings for critique in honor seminar. She said, "I don't have an, uh, a thing."
"You mean an agenda? You don't have an agenda?"
"No, one of those. I paint a lot." That was about all she said. Which was fine. I still don't know why she screamed in the halls.
After we all graduated I tried to keep up with what people were doing. I remember Ruby and Alicia doing a Southern Exposure show together, mostly paintings that they'd done by themselves. Alicia was working with dun-colored rainbow themes, lots of flat, neutral tones in a close range of values, with stripes, bumps and drips. I still didn't get them, but again, it was obvious that she was committed to it.
Once at the Luggage Store Gallery I noticed a painting in the office with that certain vibe; I asked Darrell, the curator, "Is that by Alicia McCarthy?"
"Yeah," he said. "Itās an interesting piece." Then there was an awkward pause where one would usually say, "oh, you know so-and-so, they're such a NICE person," and nobody was saying it. "Nice" can be an insult, anyway.
I ran into Alicia once at Wild Awakenings cafe, on break from my shift as the Information Lady at San Francisco Public Library. She said, in a sudden rush, loudly, "Hey, Stephanie, how are you doing?" which was almost more and friendlier words than I'd ever heard her string together. It transpired that she was working at Rainbow Grocery; she asked if it was possible to visit me at the library. I felt obscurely flattered, like you are when a toddler suddenly takes your hand and leads you to a treasure. She'd been to Skowhegan, and later followed it up with a residency at Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. I, good with English, at odds with the prevailing San Francisco art vibe, got turned down for pretty much every grant or residency applied for, and eventually designed my own personal, non-grant-funded, two-and-a-half year residency in Mexico, which worked just fine.
Then I moved to New York, read the Village Voice, and noted that "Alicia McCarthy and her friends slap up a casual post-graffiti installation at Rare." Naturally I went along. The gallery management ignored me, almost as if I were vibrating at an invisible wavelength. One whole wall was a salon-style installation of friend's pieces, fun to look at and instantly forgettable. Several of Alicia's installations manifested quite a sense of humor; the lid of a tin can, with a coconut painted upon it, isolated in the middle of a huge wall, a needle and thread puncturing a corner of the room, an odd bundle of sticks on the floor. These were labeled "Not for sale." The Serious Art was nearly as relaxed, though bearing evidence of thorough consideration. There were a couple of pink-plaid-housepaint installations, painted directly onto the wall, and a cheerful, pointy rainbow piece which crawled up onto the ceiling.
But the back wall was what had it. I plopped myself full length onto the floor and drank in the focal installation, "Untitled, (infinity rainbow)."
It was seventeen bits of grungy scrap wood, nailed to the wall in a roundish, amorphous collage, with various rainbow forms in crayon, chalk, and housepaint. I let the vibrations wash over me--ethereal, delicate, enigmatic. There were circles, linked together in infinity symbols, and then stretching into a point. The subtle juxtapositions of color and form created an energy which was intricate as filagree. The whole thing radiated a wordless sense of peace, spiralling far out into space. I think perhaps I finally got it.
© 2002 by Stephanie Lee Jackson