Margaret McCann is packing for a one-woman-show in Milan. A dozen canvases need to be shipped from Portsmouth to Italy. There are flight arrangements. Then there is the gallery hanging, the pricing, the opening, the buyers, the gawkers, the non-buyers, the critics, the tallying up, the shipping home. The selling of any painter is a world away from the artist's soul.
Yet McCann is intimate with Italy, even a bit of an expatriate after eight years painting and teaching in Rome. Students and teacher spent countless hours sketching among the ruins there. Italians, she says, have a very different way of thinking about architecture, landscape, about business, pleasure, politics and art. It is something that does not translate easily in words.
Among her paintings of Rome's colossal architecture, McCann placed man, or more often, woman. A "classic" McCann image shows a giant nude female curled comfortably inside the Coliseum. (her shell? womb? armor? skin?) Her figures are usually in response (lying? dying? dreaming? resting?) They often dwarf some monumental piece of architecture. Her human forms are directly linked to the masterworks of Pierro della Francesca, Breughel, di Chirico. Her subject matter is as ancient as the giant gods of mythology, the whimsy of Jonathan Swift or as new as the kitschy drama of Darryl Hannah in "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman." Taken as a dream, a satire, social statement or feminist metaphor, there is both message and skill here.
The artist's studio is exactly as it should be, above a storefront in an old converted stable on one of the city's narrowest brick-lined streets. This is as European as funky Portsmouth gets. The walls are all paintings, filed, piled, stacked and hung. Music drifts up from the shop downstairs. Every tiny room seems to be on a different level and a old seacoast draft winds among them as it pleases.
"Painting is a difficult pleasure, Prof. McCann frequently reminds her 90 fine art students at Boston University. "There is the unavoidable ėpain', at first, in painting. But when you're successful, you are rewarded with the ėting' that follows."
For McCann, the ting of painting comes in the act itself. It is a meditative process, she says, one person searching by herself for the sublime. These are ancient ideas, but Portsmouth is not Rome. Fleshing out her vision here, McCann's work takes a new path. Like King Kong, her colossal nudes are drawn to the area's dominant architecture. Now giants float beneath the Memorial Bridge, curl at the foot of a tourist water slide, or lie encased in a Yankee dairy barn.
The juxtaposition is telling. New England's historic landmarks and modern architecture are mere Tinkertoys when held against such classic forms. The giant women seem less connected to the architecture here, like a classical painter, homesick for the ageless certainty of Rome. Cleverly there are messages here where bodies imagine themselves as buildings. This painter has a lot to say. For the viewer, the ting of McCann's work may come, in part, from decoding the mind of the artist as she dreams from canvas to canvas.
By J. Dennis Robinson
In My Hands
Recently my hands have been clenching into fists, as if prepared for battle
But from the inside slowly feel
Fingers that would gladly curl around my frightened father who prefers to be alone.
Copyright Margaret McCann
Pictures © 1997 Margaret McCann
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