Ray Mack "Fundament"
Mack’s figurative oil paintings harness conventional, erudite practices and themes present in the larger western canon to point a questioning finger at the social systems that spawned them. Fundament, with its dual definition of “foundation” and “buttocks,” describes this collection aptly: Influenced by the form and content of classic tropes from American history paintings and nostalgic images of Americana, Mack’s paintings re-imagine familiar scenes to reveal the nightmares hidden just beneath the surface, our country’s unseemly bedrock of internalized gender hierarchies.
Mack’s work combines a low-brow sense of humor and style with oil painting technique, compositional eye, and art historical references of a well trained and highly skilled artist. The paintings range in context, directly challenging gendered dynamics in iconic images throughout art history, from Charles Willson Peale’s “The Artist in His Museum” (1822) to Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” (1945) to Norman Rockwell’s “From Concord to Tranquility” (1973).
Drawing on art historical references and formal strategies, reworking the male-dominated canon through her humorous and distinctly situated gaze. The unsettling combination of conventional, erudite practice and crude, lowbrow gesture highlights themes present in a male-dominated art history, and our oversexed, under-stimulated popular culture, which ultimately serves to tickle the armpits of the stodgy old men who made them, and shake loose the tragicomedy that we find when we look at our own societally induced sentimentality. The viewer is left intellectually and emotionally piqued, uncertain whether to giggle or weep.
In the months since Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House, Mack’s work has shifted. Subjects that seemed too on-the-nose or obvious in the past are now appropriate -- perhaps even vital -- to address head-on, with sincerity. This is an unsettling time in America, and Mack’s work offers clear reminders of what it means to have fought for and secured the rights and freedoms we all deserve.
Included in the exhibition are a series of works that borrow scenes directly from specific Rockwell paintings. In Mack’s hands, the formerly “neutral” scenes are malformed, ghostlike versions of themselves, haunted with gaping mouths, sagging limbs and flaccid phalluses. The implicit neutrality in Rockwell’s images, Mack reminds us, is based purely on the fact that they are ubiquitous. This effect reflects some of the contemporary blind spots Americans face in addressing issues of discrimination. In one work, Mack depicts a scenario of two female roommates intimately huddled together looking at a magazine; Mack’s image responds directly to Rockwell’s reductive Saturday Evening Post cover of wide-eyed damsels from the 1940s by reflecting a more emotionally realistic version of two adult women sharing space and interest.
Mack’s Betsy Ross series places the woman as the focal centerpiece, responding to the virtual absence of historically significant women in American history paintings. Mack intentionally redirects the focus to Ross to highlight the gendered mythology of her role. Through thoughtful subversion of familiar images, Mack’s work unflinchingly reminds us that now is the time to reexamine “normal.”