John McAllister: Shimmering Surface, Phosphorescent Undertow
Originally Published at New American Paintings
Beauty is a troublesome thing; but pleasure is even worse. Beauty offers ecstasy in redemptive and occasionally bittersweet truths. Pleasure, on the other hand, is grounded in desire, and desire invites all manner of perilous things. Like a riptide snaking its way towards shore, pleasure cloaks itself as beauty, luring the unsuspecting in and then drawing them out to sea.
Like these unruly tidal forces, John McAllister’s botanic haunting soft-static at Chicago’s Shane Campbell Gallery, is equal parts bliss and discontent, desire and its frustration. The nine paintings and three folding screens on display are nominally still-lifes and landscapes en abyme -each piece delivering the artist’s trademark, sybaritic bursts of intense ultraviolet sensation. But like a fever dream’s caustic hallucinations, fact and fiction are blurred.
It’s virtually impossible to read a piece on McAllister’s work that doesn’t include the ubiquitous reference to Matisse. Beneath the surface, however, the comparisons aren’t especially apt. For Matisse, everything was a question of seeing. Every piece of fruit, every rustling curtain, every sensuous body lounging in the Cote D’Azur’s clear light and warm air was fiercely observed by the master’s gaze and reified by his brush.
In McAllister’s paintings, it’s questionable whether he sees any of his ornaments at all. The sun-scorched tropical Eden of botanic haunting soft-static, a flatland of interlocking planes and red-violet color, luxuriates as finely crafted works of fantasy -pictures of pictures embedded within pictures. Drawing you in with their lustful luminescence, the paintings dash you upon the rocks with detached perceptual uncertainty.
For McAllister, the landscape is the quintessential allegorical motif. Like art, nature is a complex ideological construct, a seductive and useful fiction, and the botanical garden doubly so. Awash in Chernobyl’s twilight, the spreading palms, arching tulips and squatting ferns in these paintings are placed, not planted. And the screens of clouds sugared silence are more like the incandescent flickering and infinite scroll of the super AMOLED than the orientalist home décor from which they derive.
Delivering a highly saturated and flattened vision of an already compressed world, the anachronistic formal structures of works such as choir may carouse are far more contemporary than they first appear. Though they be clothed in last century’s liniments, these paintings embody the intoxicating satiety and cultivated deception of our omnipresent social-media. Supplanting the mystery of the boundless ocean with the inexhaustible image feed, it’s a Siren song forever promising more. More pattern, more color, more light.
Whether knowingly or not, McAllister has composed a forceful and prescient social critique on the nature of -and our obsession with- sensual appearances. Writ large in a modernist vernacular of oil on canvas, his deftly composed surfaces of unalloyed epicurean pleasure, unconcerned with rectitude, beseech us to look and then look away. These paintings seem to say: all that light and color; it’s too much. All that joy and pleasure; it’s too much. Turn away; you must. But we can’t. Out here the shore is just a line on the horizon, and soon it will be visible no more.