For a little over a year, I have returned to making abstract paintings related to a previous series, Slant Series I (1978–1983) — systemic procedural layered paintings. When recently I was considering a selection of works for an upcoming exhibition, I looked at a number of works I hadn’t seen together for probably twenty years, and had the thought, ‘perhaps there is some unfinished business here.’ I recall a famous quote by Yogi Berra — “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So I am taking it — and this trip backwards does seem to be going forward.
/BILLY J. McCARROLL maintains his art and music practice in Lethbridge, Alberta. He has held various positions at the University of Lethbridge Faculty of Fine Arts, including Director/Curator of the Art Gallery, Chair of Visual Arts, member of the Art Advisory Committee and, most recently, Professor Emeritus. He was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 2009.
/BILLY J. McCARROLL — BACKWARDS IS SOMETIMES FORWARD
It comes as no surprise that Billy J. McCarroll would offer the exhibition title Backwards is Sometimes Forward, as it exposes his nature as a prankster artist who is difficult to pin down. Look left and he's right, call him a pop minimalist infatuated with golf and he'll smear paint on his canvas with an 8” brush, expect him to rest on his laurels and he'll come back with some of the richest, most compelling new paintings he has ever produced.
In what might appear to be an about-face, McCarroll has hung up his clubs and is picking up where he left off—reinvestigating the geometric abstract paintings he initiated during the late '70s. It was then, on the heels of his Clome series (slick, industrial works made with automotive lacquer on plexi) and his Geotape Constructions (hard edge compositions replete with trompe l'oeil masking tape), that McCarroll arrived at the Slants.
McCarroll’s Slants evoke the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Garry Kennedy, Eric Cameron, and Jeffrey Spalding, among others; whether this is to be viewed as a tip of the hat, an ironic wink, or both, is not always clear, but the work does share an investment in line, form, colour, surface and process. Whether on canvas, board or paper, the painting procedure was more or less consistent—inscribed into a foundation of layered paint a straight line was taken from the edge to multiple intersections on an unseen grid that inevitably, and to a certain respect unpredictably, circumscribed triangles, squares, rhombuses and quadrilaterals. These forms were then assigned a specific colour, usually with preference to a bold palette, and a surface treatment that revealed the work’s handmade nature to varying degrees. The permutations were endless, and McCarroll tried his hand at a good percentage of them before abandoning the Slants for ‘Slammin' Sammy’ and other golf-inspired works in 1983.
Decades later, McCarroll's new paintings make sense as a natural development out of those earlier works, yet they feel fresh, certainly not a nostalgic nod to the 1980s. Amongst the newest work, Ellsworth's T sets the bar very high. Front and center, a black rectangle is perched horizontally upon a blue square, forming a T, itself enclosed in a larger, stark red square. Finally, a broad strip of white separates the edge of the panel from the interior, simultaneously operating as a frame, window or platform. The forms and colours are sturdy, bold and clearly in line with McCarroll's eponymous homage to Ellsworth Kelly. Still, the real strength and novelty of the work lies in the line, the surface and the manner in which it reveals its own making.
In Ellsworth’s T, as in many of the new works, the once-suggested grid of his earlier practice is made explicit. At times, the lines are broad and aggressively etched into the panel (on occasion breaking through the board); at others, the lines are shallow and faint, or disappear altogether. The surface is similarly laboured over as McCarroll builds layers upon layers of paint and wet-sands sections down until they are impossibly smooth, and then with his bare hands smoothes them even further, until they radiate with a sheen like the leather of an old saddle.
Though guided by the imposition of the grid, McCarroll’s process relies on intuition, and he walks the line between uncertainty and conviction. If, as SolLeWitt famously posited, “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art” 1, then McCarroll takes that machine, fiddles with it until it breaks and then sees if he can fix it. It’s this tinkering sensibility that is evident as he either scrapes, sands, etches or rubs his way through the layers of paint—moving backwards to move forwards—exposing the works’ process like a palimpsest.
Works like Ellsworth's T become a startling curiosity, at once a post-minimalist quotation that, at a glance, is polished to such an extent it appears as though mechanically made and at the same time is inflected with the markings, subjectivities and, literally, the sweat of the artist's own hand. It is not by accident that the work can also appear as though built of ceramic tile and grout, pointing to the artist's first love as a ceramicist. Finally, we mustn't overlook McCarroll's wit, and in Ellsworth's T,his tongue must surely be found deep within his cheek if one approaches the painting as a severely reductivist variation on his own series of ‘Golf Tees.’
Far from a straightforward formal study, the work is remarkable in its capacity to collapse 50 years of McCarroll's flirtations with Conceptualism, Post-Minimalism, Pop Art, Hard-edge painting and Post-painterly Abstraction. At the same time, he continues to explore a wide range of issues in painting, such as what to do with the edge of the canvas, texture, articulating space, or the relationship of the part to the whole. But perhaps it's that other passion of McCarroll's that truly shapes these abstract paintings—jazz. Miles Davis once said that if his band wasn't making mistakes they weren't trying hard enough, and it's this maxim by which McCarroll has approached his art. Like the best jazz musicians, he knows how to run with unexpected derivations, and embrace happy accidents. The result is a selection of riffs and standards that are transformed into something both captivating and challenging. Whether or not one might feel compelled to call him an appropriation artist, he certainly manages to toy with various signifiers of broadly understood artistic movements and cultural imagery to reveal a distinctly personal interpretation infused with cunning, humour, and irreverence. Leave it to McCarroll to take such an elaborately layered practice and shrug it off with the simple explanation that he's “either trying to get into something or out of something. That's it.”
1 Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum, vol. 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967): 79-83.
/RYAN DOHERTY joined the staff of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) as curator in 2008 after receiving his Master of Arts degree from the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York (2007). He is currently curating a retrospective exhibition spanning 40 years of Billy J. McCarroll's practice in Lethbridge, Alberta.