Michael Cline’s current exhibition, Corporation Pudding, presents a painted miasma of carnivalesque Americana. In six sumptuous oil paintings and a trio of elegant collages, this Florida born artist whips up one bizarre scenario after the next. Each painting is packed like a suitcase busting at the seams with repeating motifs: house plants, 2x4s, eyeballs, ears and fingers, pages torn from comics, clamp lamps, electrical cords, magazine adverts. Incredibly, Cline’s organized all this banal stuff into compositions as well balanced as any 17th century still life, which is one genre his paintings call to mind.
The tradition of vanitas paintings was largely allegorical, and this seems to be the case in Cline’s work as well. Cultural objects become symbols for metaphysical conditions, though extrapolating precise equivalents (i.e. skull = mortality) seems somewhat beside the point. Today, so much happens on screen, in worlds built out of numerical codes, that our metaphysical reality is more tangible than ever. But these paintings don’t deliver parables about virtual life or any afterworlds so much as they refer to that metaphysical place known as recent history. It all seems as close and yet as unreachable as yesterday’s lunch.
Michael Cline, Untitled, collage, 17 x 15.5", 2013; Courtesy of the artist and Horton Gallery.
Part of what makes Cline’s paintings work is his technique. The opposite of painterly, his is the high skill of the vanished hand. Not a single stroke is visible, all dissolves into image. What this does is reduce the visual stimulus, and allow the whirr of imagery to coalesce. Each painting appears to have tremendous texture, which is entirely the result of Cline’s deft handling of color and pattern. The surfaces of his canvases are as still and smooth as water in a tub.
Corporation Pudding (2013), the eponym of the exhibition, looks like a ramshackle heap organized into three coordinate sections. The front end of a Model T-Ford abuts up against a lavish grouping of garden-variety greenery masquerading as the foliage of a tree, which is bound on the other side by a 2x4 fence that looks like it would be vulnerable to the slightest gust of wind. Depth is created not through light or shadow, but by means of layering, allowing each element its own discrete identity. The abundance of the composition and its warm palette lends the work a playful quality, as does the smiley face in the headlight. However, the sense of whimsy is countered by Cline’s somewhat ominous black background (another motif that appears in multiple canvases), which seems like a void that has either just disgorged all of Cline’s stuff or is about to consume it.
Michael Cline, Corporation Pudding, oil on linen, 66 x 78", 2013; Courtesy of the artist and Horton Gallery.
Cline’s Arranged Portrait (2013) displays another trope that the artist masterfully manipulates: scale. In this painting a hodgepodge of plants—cabbage, cacti, vines, hyacinths, a sunflower—are nestled together in a big bowl on a wooden table. They’re all mature, and they’re all the same size. Amidst the plants there is a vase, a candle, a clamp lamp, a butterfly, an advert, and a piece of cardboard that reads “Nope.” An inchworm with the girth of a large snake wiggles through. Eyeballs, ears, and teeth appear here and there, implying faces where they may not be. And, really, it looks like the whole arrangement should be sliding off the table, crashing into that black void. The arrangement looks plausible at first glance, but the longer one looks the more Cline’s portrait departs from reality. And whose portrait anyway? The sunflower and severed ear suggest Van Gogh, but the cardboard sign seems to indicate otherwise. In fact, the title calls to mind an arranged marriage, and the portrait’s many oddities crammed together could work as a metaphor for that old tradition. Cline makes things fit together, look like they belong together, even when the union seems entirely outrageous.
(Image on top: Michael Cline, Arranged Portrait , 2013, oil on linen; Courtesy of the artist and Horton Gallery)