Friday, November 4, 2011

Mark McCarty: Skin at Opalka Gallery

It is appropriate that the exhibition Mark McCarty: Skin at Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery begins with a self-portrait, because this show is as much about McCarty as it is about the many people depicted in it. Long awaited (McCarty's last solo show - aside from a wonderful mini-exhibition of iPhone pictures that just ended at McGreevy ProLab - was in 2004), comprehensive (the show presents 35 pieces, 36 if you count the one that is, inexplicably, included twice) and focused (all the works are black-and-white portraits) Skin happened because Opalka Director Jim Richard Wilson recognized that it needed to happen.

McCarty has been making both personal and commercial photographs for over 30 years, and both have brought him considerable recognition. But the effort to mount a major art exhibition is easy to leave aside when you are dealing with clients, raising a family, meeting deadlines. So McCarty continued to make the personal work - that's essential - but has tended to only show it in dribs and drabs, usually at one or another regional group exhibition.

Now, we have the opportunity to look at a broad and deep slice of those pictures - still limited to a particular long-term project or two, but a good choice was made to present a very personal segment of the total output, rather than a more diverse survey. It tells a deeply compelling story of lives written on the skin of those living in it, and of McCarty's place amid those lives as participant, observer, and compassionate collaborator.

Like a lot of commercial shooters, McCarty is well versed in a great array of technical skills and styles. This show includes a couple of grainy 35mm shots; 11 images from a square-format rollfilm camera; and 23 prints from 8-by-10-inch sheet film (these in two sizes). All the prints have been produced by digitally scanning the negatives and printing in ink on heavy paper - but you would hardly know it, as they have the look of gelatin-silver prints in texture and tonality.

More than half the pictures are of McCarty's immediate family - wife and children - including his first wife, Vicky, who died of cancer when their daughter, Kate, was still a baby. One of the most affecting images in the show (and no less so for being about 4 by 5 feet) shows Vicky and Kate from behind, their oval heads in rhythm, the regrown hair on Vicky's not nearly as thick as the first-grown hair on Kate's.

In this, as in nearly every image in the show, the subjects are unclothed; those who are not part of the nuclear family include a number of elderly Alzheimer's patients, and others of all ages. Almost never is the picture a "nude," though some get near that when the subject's face is obscured or cropped out. Not surprisingly, those tend to be the less compelling images.

The textures that give the show life are mainly those of the face, with all its lines and freckles, the hands (ditto) and, in certain strong instances, the hair and nails. One very expressive portrait of the photographers' nude second wife crops out her head, but allows her hands to receive the treatment of a sensitive portrait. Another image, of a woman identified as Emilee, shows mainly her torso from the side, folds of fat, stretch marks, scars and all. And another, of the only non-white person in the show (named Miss Ada), is full-face with eyes squeezed shut - but behind one set of lids, there's a hollow socket.

Though the pictures in Skin go back to 1985, it is worth noting that these last three were all made in 2011, clearly demonstrating that McCarty remains at the peak of his creative and expressive abilities. Still, the exhibition works very much as a whole, as a timeline of one life's intimacies and contiguous looks outward in the form of portraits. McCarty's world is here, as is his world view. It is a vital viewing experience.

Rating: Must See

Note: A very handsome catalog, with an opening statement by the artist and essays by Phyllis Galembo and Lyle Rexer, has been printed to accompany the exhibition Skin. Larger and more sumptuously designed than past Opalka catalogs, it is priced at $20, a nice deal. Be sure to check it out when you go.

2 comments:

Jim Miller said...

Great Blog Post! I went to the Opalka and was glad I did! What fantastic work! Wish I'd have seen the catalog as it would have made a nice addition to my collection of photographic works! Go see this showing if you haven't! You will be better for it...

Dan Wilcox said...

Yes, a very compelling show. Worth seeing.
DWx