McLean Edwards: Eventually no more - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

For all the whimsy in McLean Edwards’s paintings, there is always, indelibly, a sense of mortality. After all, writes Andrew Frost, this is the artist who scribes his age – almost like a countdown – in the corner of each and every canvas.

Every time McLean Edwards finishes a new painting he signs it not with his name but with his age. He’s currently up to 39. One after another until, eventually, no more. His work is marked with a palpable sense of mortality and humility, a tragicomedy of figures and apparitions, thought-bubbles and asides, a diary of his anxieties and dreams. Edwards is a ruminator who gestates ideas and thoughts that he slowly commits to canvas. Whether the works are ever really finished is an open question. Painting in oil on canvas, that most traditional of all art media, Edwards’s works are literally fluid, evolving and changing, sometimes dramatically, as those thoughts and ideas likewise change. He habitually alters the work as he goes. Only when they end up on the gallery wall and out of his reach do the paintings eventually settle into something like a permanent state. But once out of the studio and in the hands of his committed band of collector-followers, they are also already out of sight and mind, and he’s on to the next body of work.

Over the past year Edward’s has been experimenting with a sequence of paintings concerning the fictional pop band Baby Boomers Go Home. The paintings depict the five band members and their adventures through the compromised and corporatised landscape of No Logo-style resistance culture. The band plays charity gigs for good causes, agitates for generational change at the top (hence the name) and leads protest marches. Unfortunately, the band is also just a creature of clever marketing, no doubt sincere in its desire for a better world, but still all about selling product. For Edwards, the band is a metaphor for his own position in the art world, a purveyor of utopian dreams brought down by the sordid realities of life.

Working steadily for his upcoming show No Immunity with Karen Woodbury Gallery, which will include a few pieces from the now abandoned Baby Boomers Go Home series, Edwards has produced a number of paintings in his inimitable style including the large Suite of Friends, a self-portrait as a wounded Santa Claus among a veritable Christmas of Santas. In conversation with the artist, Edwards tells me that the painting is on one level a protest at the corporatisation of things, how the spirit of living is a matter of commerce, but on another and perhaps one that the artist would acknowledge, the painting is another prime example of Edwards putting on a costume for the pantomime of appearance.

One of the curious aspects of his notoriety as a painter is that he’s often compared to artists who trade in the antiquated pop culture of past times – boy’s own adventure stuff, tin toy catalogues, that kind of thing. For me, Edwards’s work is far darker and has the same sour humour as Samuel Beckett’s plays and prose; an absurd, theatrical sadness that celebrates idiosyncrasy while acknowledging the seeming impossibility of fighting the universe. Like Beckett’s play Endgame – with its cast of characters stuck in an entropic void with no external world to escape to – Edwards’s paintings sit in an uneasy conceptual place, somewhere between desire and disappointment, resignation and exuberant refusal to be ground down by the bastards.

Every artist, regardless of their chosen medium, attempts to make sense of their time and their place within it. But not everyone gets to be a Beckett, a man of letters but also a man of action – Beckett being a former member of the French Resistance, blowing up German tanks, grenades and Sten gun in hand, thoughts for a novel in mind. Since the Western world returned to a war footing post 9/11 there has been a notable turn from the expansive view of 1990s art toward a defiant subjectivity. This can be seen everywhere, from the plethora of performance video art pieces through to artists rejecting the very idea of making art for a market. And then there is painting itself, the most analog medium of all, and for Edwards this is the field of action, resisting the super flat world of photomedia with his own definitely handmade creations. Still political, yes, but a fiction we can warm to.

McLean Edwards’s next exhibition, No Immunity, will be staged at Karen Woodbury Gallery in Melbourne from 3 to 27 August 2011.

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