Ryan McCartney and his co-organizer, Tim Belknap, recently asked truck owners to pull up their vehicles inside The Icebox at Crane Arts and create installations in the truck flatbeds or cabs. “The Philadelphia Truck Expo” had an atmosphere not unlike a tailgating party — very different from the almost meditative ambience of his current exhibition, “breaks to make,” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid. But despite their different natures, it’s worth mentioning the two shows together because it’s hard to imagine McCartney without a truck, whether it’s being used to haul art materials or to get away from it all.
The feel of “breaks” could be compared to a solitary camping trip in the heart of a pine forest after a cacophonous week in the humid city. Two paintings of the same measurement (42 inches by 51 inches) hang almost opposite each other in the gallery, each titled walking, walking with different parenthetical distinctions — (from the heel) and (on sixes) (shown). Both could be seen as just pleasing abstractions composed of painterly brushstrokes, but they’re far too reminiscent of looking up into a canopy of trees, or reflections on water, or the forest as you move through it. Movement, time, silence, individual experience and a certain memento mori — the idea that you will only have so much time to contemplate the movement of light through the trees — pervade.
McCartney has been primarily known as a painter. This is his second solo exhibition at TSA, where he’s been a member since 2010. His previous work for the gallery, under the title “see the man walking,” was almost entirely painting, though the ground of the paintings was composed of wood fitted together to form ridges and layers. In “breaks,” the wood has been transferred directly into sculpture while the painting stays on canvas, with the exception of some transitional pieces such as times two (paranoid behavior). This piece features a streaky black ground with two painted dowel rods emerging at a diagonal, somehow giving off an impression of hyperspace travel.
McCartney’s work here is very carefully crafted and casts an aura of intrigue that inspires viewers to puzzle out possible meanings. Color is used for aesthetic pleasure, but never only that; paintings such as hours are hours miss being recognized as ugly only because their surface is so arresting and unexpected. Sistered, a sculpture that resembles a burned square column or joist due to the application of black ink to its hacked and distressed top, is a puzzle that keeps the brain on a fluid feedback loop. One wonders if the title is meant to reference reinforcing woodwork, and why the column is full of holes, some of which are filled. However, mystery dominates some works a little too much: The sculpture dog years, reminiscent of a giant abacus or a piece of playground equipment on hinges, gives the impression of a representational idea but reveals little. The small painting bad video lacks the grace of McCartney’s other works and seems out of place in this exhibit, bringing digital-age concerns into an otherwise tranquil space.
These inconsistencies are small concerns, and may spring from the artist overthinking. Every decision in McCartney’s work appears to have been agonized over, and in most cases this pays off: This attention to tiny details, like the way the edges of times two (paranoid behavior) and the small nothing to hear cast a subtle orange onto their recessed white frames, make for an exhibition worth hanging out with.
“Ryan McCartney: breaks to make,” through July 29, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, 319 N. 11th St., open Sat. and Sun., 2-6 p.m., and by appointment via firstname.lastname@example.org, 484-469-0319, tigerstrikesasteroid.com.