If I’ve learned anything from Cy Twombly as a painter, it’s that the elegant gesture (once learned) is almost impossible to unlearn. It’s one of life’s small tragedies that only children seem able to capture the perfect emotional timbre of line. When I draw an orchid with my six-year-old, mine looks like a flower but hers looks like it’s growing. There’s a possibility there that can’t be contained on a single page. This is not to say, “stop the project. Pack up your brushes and go home, adults.” While kids may have the timbre, they have no head for orchestration. Because of the way the artists explained their process, I had these thoughts in mind when visiting Kate Neckel and Mike McCready’s Collaborative exhibition Sway: Infinite Color & Sound. The name “infinite” refers to the duo’s “lack of rules, boundaries, or restrictions in their synergistic creations.” However “infinite” the process may seem to Neckel and McCready, what we find in Sway is orchestration rather than rough timbre.
Neckel is an abstract painter and Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam fame) a musician who has dabbled in art, mostly making Polaroids. While it’s impossible to tell in collaborative ventures “who” worked on “what,” we have to assume that Neckel did most of the painting while McCready inserted the various collaged bits (often Polaroid-related). This kind of riffing is great fun for artists, if they trust each other enough to cede control, but there’s a certain politeness that remains in the Sway works. Even in what I assume are Neckel’s parts, nothing seems to “touch” anything else. There is very little overlap of objects or push and pull of the paint surface. Most of the works are abstract, but in a revealing dual self-portrait they stand, shoulder to shoulder, with air between them. What makes the works is Neckel’s excellent and confident compositions and her irreverent sense of color. She pulls together rectangular canvases using the quirky efficiency of thick black lines.
Where the two do ‘overlap’ in a physical and metaphorical sense, is in their performances. In their Instagram videos of their live ‘happenings,’ McCready’s guitar spills out music into the space as Neckel smudges paint with her hands onto a wall-stretched canvas and onto the musician himself. McCready’s music is warm and expansive, and Neckel responds to any distortion with her painter’s version of the same: artfully palming bright paint into muddy sludge on the canvas. What they do is somehow mesmerizing, not because they are losing control or boundaries, but because they play at it so well. They have a good chemistry that’s fun to watch, and each is skilled at their own art, but we never feel the uneasiness that anything could happen. The painter will paint. The musician will play.
Just like Twombly and six year-olds everywhere teach us, it’s a fact as artists that the wisdom of expertise we gain through experience is permanent. We no longer have “infinity” available to us, like it or not. We specialize, which necessarily means a narrowing of options-whittling down from infinity to ever less than that. The trick is one of connotation. Less here doesn’t mean ‘worse.’ It simply means knowing your areas of hard-won expertise and playing them for all they’re worth.