Laura Craig McNellis: Structures
Laura Craig McNellis’s visual exploration owes as much to a keenly observant mind as to an apparent fascination with the sensuous materiality of paint and paper. Her compositions are infused with an intense liveliness; packed with bravura and articulate, discernible brushstrokes resulting in expressionistic images that seem to emerge from this momentum and establish an intriguing pictorial plane—often at the threshold between figuration and abstraction. Structures presents McNellis’s early paintings portraying architectural forms in a thematic isolation that illuminates their concrete poetry. Through the artist’s almost rhythmic use of geometric shapes, lines, grids, and her dynamic treatment of color, these structures achieve the antithesis of rigidity; they remain alive with the original impulse of creation, beaming from within.
Born in 1957 in Nashville, Tennessee, McNellis is the prodigal youngest child and fourth sister in a close-knit family that always encouraged her gift. She was prolific from very early on, habitually painting into the night. Although developmentally disabled and autistic, she was never institutionalized and instead raised at home with abiding commitment; exposed to a variety of stimuli and challenging social opportunities. When McNellis was an infant, her parents bought a large house where she lived with them until they both passed away. Up until the late ’80s, most of the artist’s work was still there, stuffed in drawers and bags or stored in the attic. Like a chronicler who adds to the frame story an astonishing visual account of itself, McNellis went through a phase where she documented rooms and objects from this house—which is also imprinted in the memory of her sisters—in a series of thorough and precise works. The artist’s repertoire of themes has always occurred from this kind of dialogue with immediate reality and the tangible experience of the very specific person that she is. Or, as her sister Pat puts it: “Laura has never painted landscapes purely from her mind.”
McNellis’s body of work depicts a wide-ranging collection of treasured objects: from ice cream cones and cake slices to favorite clothing, from pop stickers and hot water bottles to portraits of people, animals, and her beloved doll: “Old Dolly.” She generally commits to her subject fixations one at a time and until she exhausts them. Throughout this process, she has developed a visual lexicon that is a world unto itself. McNellis’s preferred surface remains the blank newsprint paper that her late father, who worked as a post office sorter, would bring back home folded in stacks. She usually draws before painting—either from memory, or going back and forth between object and sketch until satisfied with the level of detail. The works are fundamentally two-dimensional, yet they regularly and resourcefully describe three-dimensional information. When the paint (typically tempera) comes into the picture it often takes a life of its own, covering a lot of the initial minutiae and giving the works their characteristic improvisational texture. McNellis’s series of architectural works depicts existing constructions rendered in a way that could be thought archetypal, but made specific through the artist’s fluency with color mixing and her penetrating insight on the play between symmetries and asymmetries. These structures, as seen through McNellis’s lens, seem to offer the familiar tenderness of old friends and the unpretentious sense of security of sanctuaries; they touch on the fundamental human need for shelter, physical and otherwise.
While McNellis has no interest in backdrops, she has almost always painted a sun—rays poking out—perched quizzically on the upper-right hand corner of each painting, preceded by a row of small lumpy clouds. This visual rubric, which we can safely assume autonomous from the nature of the scene or the elements portrayed, seems to function as a symbolic grip within the world that the artist strives continually to comprehend. Sun and sky are the prototypical sources of order, the rudiments of life and harmony as derived from biological cycles. Yet, in the context of McNellis’s opus, these elements are so strikingly alienated that they become cryptic. Along the same line of thought, the artist’s recurrent inclusion of a capricious succession of letters at the foot of the composition—varying from one piece to the next—may function as a spellbinding statement of sorts, consolidating an intimate intellectual need that she appears to satisfy through her practice. As a young girl, McNellis would have her mother write important things and events in her life on the slots of flip calendars, she then liked to trace over the handwriting. Although she has acquired an ample spoken vocabulary over the years (uttered in a way that only those close to her can understand) and acknowledges the graphic and conceptual power of the written word, McNellis is essentially non-literate; she cannot make the connection between the sound and the sign. Her inclusion of letters thus expresses the earnestness of her pursuit in the face of limited access to language—the structure, par excellence, of meaning.
McNellis uses her recurrent stylistic motifs with the same assertiveness with which she often releases them from the page—in full or in part—when she swiftly cuts the corners and trims the edges of her paintings. This final step creates a sort of built-in framing, turning the works themselves into objects. For a long time, after finishing a piece, she would immediately fold the paper back up following the original creases (as it typically came pre-folded by the press) before putting it away. “I think, for Laura, the finished product is more about the completion of the exploration of the object than it is about how the image looks,” says her sister Lynn. McNellis’s profound curiosity invites us to revisit the rituals, cycles, and traces of human activity; the building blocks with which we craft the narratives of the every-day. Her unique method of cataloguing life—an unremitting exercise in capturing the gist of things and pruning the rest—transports us to a charming locus somewhere amid her mind’s idiosyncrasies and the more ordinary coordinates of the “real,” a sophisticated dance between the noble intention to represent things faithfully and an innate inventiveness that knows no boundary.
With special thanks to Lynn Strange and Pat McNellis.