How to Play a Winning Game Your Natural Way
Forty years ago, a lanky young artist with a shock of red hair, brushes in one hand and golf clubs in the other, left the sunny coast of California for the prairies of Alberta. Not only would he choose to stay in Lethbridge, he would become instrumental in shaping the city’s reputation as a dynamic arts community while lending an uncommon and unmistakable voice to contemporary art in Canada. Celebrating one of the few artists who could boast such accolades or elicit such praise, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery is pleased to devote its spaces to the work of Billy J. McCarroll.
How to Play a Winning Game Your Natural Way revisits McCarroll’s practice from the early 1970s to today. The exhibition is not explicitly chronological; rather, it features key examples from McCarroll’s most significant bodies of work and reveals how many of the strategies and interests he explores remain evident, albeit reconfigured, transformed or quoted, with each new shift. From Clomes to Tape Constructions, Slants to Slammin’ Sammy, McCarroll continued to demonstrate his investment with colour, surface, the relationship of line and form, and the significance of process. For McCarroll, it is not only about where you go, but how you get there and whether as an artist, teacher, golfer or jazz musician, his process combines intuition, trial and error, technique, and a comprehensive knowledge of the work of others following a similar path.
A graduate of the University of California at San Francisco and Humboldt, McCarroll began his career in ceramics in the context of Funk art along with Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly and others associated with the movement. His works were comparably quirky, irreverent and infused with humour, and when mixed with the slick surfaces of Los Angeles’ hot rod culture, they were uniquely his own. Arriving in Lethbridge in 1971, it was a straight line from his ceramic works coated in industrial paint to his Clome paintings – a simple, repeatable geometric form (half dome, half cloud) rendered in a sizzling palette of automotive lacquer on Plexiglas.
By 1977, the process of using tape to mask off the Clome forms became, for McCarroll, more compelling than the work itself. Leaving the tape on the canvas, or the illusion of the tape (complete with trompe l’oeil torn edges) already constituted the mechanism that developed his line and form intrinsically and signified a serious Hard-edge painting technique undercut by a tongue-in-cheek playfulness. The Tape or Geotape Construction series generated a wide array of approaches from intensely coloured tape lines on Plexiglas to genuine audio tape and embossed grids on thick paper stock. The influence of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Conceptual Art more generally, figured prominently in McCarroll’s life during this period with the likes of Alan Barkley, Garry Kennedy and Gerald Ferguson and others who came to the University of Lethbridge to teach or exhibit. McCarroll can be credited for fostering these relationships having been charged with programming the University gallery and breathing life into the then non-existent collection with purchases of select works by Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha, Pat Steir, David Bolduc, Ken Lochhead and Paterson Ewen.
Procedural systems were a useful tactic for McCarroll’s Tape Constructions though one that he strove to complicate and unsettle in an effort to achieve a more intuitive and personal aesthetic. His painterly surface treatments became even more pronounced as his process generated increasingly reductivist works: framing a rectangular, uniform field of surface and colour and then taping diagonally across a corner. By the end of the 1970s, these works transitioned to signal McCarroll’s Slant series in which he abandoned tape in favour of lines etched deeply into layers upon layers of paint. His interest in process based art perseveres with the Slants and recalls the art of Garry Kennedy or Eric Cameron’s thick paintings, which despite an almost automated application, eventually reveal the nuances of the hand and the inevitability of human failure. At the same time, the Slants were distinctly formal as McCarroll’s etched lines would meet to form monochromatic rectangles, rhombuses and other polyhedrons echoing the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold or Frank Stella.
Some would suggest that Billy McCarroll’s story really begins in 1983 when he received the instructional book, Sam Snead’s Natural Golf from close friend and Calgary artist John Will. Enamored with and excelling at the sport for much of his life, the gift was not unplaced, but after pulling a few screenprints appropriating a selection of its eccentric drawings, it became evident that the book had more to give. McCarroll would spend the next 25 years inextricably bound to the visage of Sam Snead and the sundry accoutrement of golf; it became the culmination of his life and work, his passions and his quandaries. As before, they are studies of line, form, surface, colour and process. The intense colour and thick black outlines of the almost advert-like illustrations of golf lessons adds a Pop sensibility and a nod to the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Guston and Patrick Caulfield. Offering tips from ‘how to grip the club’ to ‘ensuring a firm follow-through,’ McCarroll’s paintings, like golf, are often taken up as rich terrain for metaphors about art, life and the human condition. As Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated” and one could say the same about McCarroll’s painting despite his tendency to dismiss any deeper significance.
In light of this long foray into the realm of golf and its instruction, it is all the more remarkable to find Billy McCarroll suddenly returning to a form of abstraction more closely resembling his earlier Slants. They follow a similar logic: an etched line enters a field of layered paint, moves around describing a geometric form and exits, but the manner in which this ‘deceptively simple’ process is articulated is deeply nuanced and personal. McCarroll paints, sands, rubs, etches, and repaints over and over until the surface gleams and myriad layers are simultaneously revealed and concealed. Artists are evoked – Ellsworth Kelly, John Clark, Jeffrey Spalding – although with a sense of homage and respect reserved for old friends. Above all there is a confidence apparent in the work that indicates not a departure from golf but an exceptional understanding of the game. As Sam Snead would surely agree, if you want to play the game well, you need to forget about the tips, the strategy, and the pressure and embrace what feels right. To play a winning game, you have to do it your natural way.
How to Play a Winning Game Your Natural Way is organized by the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and curated by Ryan Doherty. Funding assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and the City of Lethbridge. This exhibition is made possible with works from the University of Lethbridge Art Collection, The Glenbow Museum as well as private collections.
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