Contemporary art luminaries often go for the grand entrance: big props, sound and angst, buckets of PR and the iconic theme lest you forget them. But their fiery conflagration burns hot and fast. Other artists work their craft sans trumpets and fanfare in steady, contemplative labors, presenting sustained excellence over decades. Such is visual artist Mary Fielding McCleary.
McCleary is a stellar name in the big state of Texas. Collected and shown across the world, she’s a regional artist by choice of abode but thematically very diverse. One repeated theme is a reflection of her Christian faith, which she openly shared in an interview with Douglas Britt.
Common for many Southerners, McCleary grew up in church but wasn’t serious until she “investigated the evidence – and became excited about studying Bible stories as an adult and really getting into the deep meanings of the translations.”
Being privy to her depth of thought and investigating the “deep meanings” of Scripture makes McCleary’s otherwise mysterious work more readable. She discourages rote, trite assumptions though. Referring to her piece “Trotline,” she is hesitant to explain the “meaning” when asked.
“If I tell people before they look, it closes down the meaning, and it totally changes the response to the piece,” she said.
Instead, she encourages her audience to uncover meaning and interpret art for themselves so it will “have more impact on them.”
One interpretation was by critic Ken Johnson, commenting positively on McCleary’s “Allegory of the Senses” at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) show in New York 2005. Impressive by her large collage, “entirely of little bits and pieces of things … sticks, nails, glass and painted toothpicks,” the picture is a family who seems tensely caught off guard in a living room. Johnson found her technique created “an optical and tactile vividness bordering on the hallucinogenic.” Open displays of Christian iconography (Bible and other symbols) made the incongruity he experienced “even more charged.”
McCleary began her singular works with collage-making in 1978. Over the years her work grew less abstract but much more dimensional with the additions of toys, lint, mirrors, leather, tools and other curiosities embedded in the piece. She considers both the aesthetic and symbolic values of the items before she assembles them into her projects.
Evil is a theme that has haunted McCleary “forever and ever” – how great evil is committed by ordinary people. Hannah Arendt described it as the “banality” of evil. McCleary uses modern, middle-class subjects in domestic acts as well as ordinary objects to allude to this in some works.
“This is about lots of different things sort of all floating together,” she explained.
“I like the irony of using materials that are often trivial, foolish and temporal to express ideas of what is significant, timeless,”she adds.
And isn’t that the challenge of all art touching spiritual or epic themes? Beginning with the humble bits, a certain frequency of sound, a shade, a shape or twist of the body, the artist attempts to signify a nebulous and eternal reality by these very things.
For a time McCleary used the ultra trivial “toy googley eyes” punctuating the surface of many works at regular intervals like a quilt. I find the effect kind of eerie rather than comical, especially when they fall across a figure or face (see “The Good Samaritan” or “Geresene-Swine”).
At a distance McCleary’s work resembles mosaics. Embedded objects are common in each, but her pieces are simultaneously very painterly, and it must be formidable to achieve both effects. Equally impressive is the almost hyper-realistic aura some of her pieces appear to hold at some distance. In spite of the weight and layering, though, McCleary manages to attach objects to heavy paper with glue and paint layering them in a convincingly paint-like manner. Referred to as “paintings,” her mixed media technique drives to the very limits of what paper can withstand.
Prolific writer Harold Fikett, who collaborated with Chuck Colson among other things, reflected on her work: “The first time I saw the art of Mary McCleary, I went away talking about the stunning and affecting paintings. … I had to keep correcting myself, knowing the works to be collages. . . . She is the Seurat of collage.”
Toys and hardware aren’t just gimmicks for McCleary, because the objects succeed on at least two levels. Visually they are arresting, leading viewers between the subject, which is collectively created by the amassed shapes and the individual objects. Fruits of the earth and the senses dazzle and involve viewers via a frontal assault on the mind and eyes. Also, because McCleary lets us know she deliberated about the inclusion of each and every object, an observer can’t help but puzzle, “Why the piece of glass across his face?”
They are also just fun, introducing a note of whimsy and wonder into heavier subjects. McCleary share her goals as making obsessive images that “convey an intensity which the viewer finds compelling.”
In McCleary’s 2011 show “An Act of Faith: The Art of Mary McCleary” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, the titles clue viewers to a worldview that isn’t always easily decoded in her work. “Ash Wednesday” sets a young man in a barren orchard with a feeling of forlorn longing, but is not otherwise spiritually explicit. She offers us more of a mood than an explanation or sermon. Other subjects include mythology, allegory, history and popular culture.
Some art immediately stands out to anyone with a bit of Bible knowledge, but that population seems to be shrinking lately. “The Good Samaritan” is re-scripted with modern figures telling the story for this generation: an intent, selfless bystander, the injured man in a deserted landscape and some type of professional scurrying to escape any liabilities.
In 2011 Art League Houston honored her by presenting “Texas Artist of the Year Exhibition: Mary McCleary: A Survey 1996 – 2011.” ALH Executive Director Vanessa Wodehouse described her work as “brilliantly complex and executed in an extraordinary manner.”
McCleary has worked prolifically as an artist and art educator (Regent’s Professor of Art Emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University), and this is hardly her first retrospective. Mary McCleary is an artist of vocation and also dedicated to the personal mission of her craft.
She continues to evolve at her own pace and direction. “Tower” a recent, mixed-media collage features a distorted perspective (literally), with a man balanced precariously on tottering piles of books. Hundreds of shapes/objects, which may represent content of the volumes, leave the viewer marveling over his choices. Christians may read in the Tower of Babel or a precarious balance over the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
Regardless of interpretation, McCleary’s offerings are substantial works of art for those of faith and otherwise.