THE OBJECT IN THE LIMIT, 2008
This essay by Stacy Switzer, Curator and Director of Grand Arts in Kansas City, first appeared in the catalog “Michael Jones McKean: Selected Projects 2003-2008” in spring of 2008.
“By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end—
Methinks it is no journey.”
“Being more X than K
‘Feet don’t fail me miaow’
Carved above the grave
‘Curved above the groov’”
The Meta, The Mercy
Choose a place to enter into Michael Jones McKean’s mysterious, poetic and complex work. To do so, you will have to let go of beginnings, middles, endings: for linear narrative is of little consequence in this artist’s constructed parallel worlds. McKean’s elegant assemblages and ambitious installations are places-out-of-place within times-out-of-time. They can be hallucinatory, elliptical, and vexing despite their insistent materiality in the here-now. But even without endings, there are ends in these works, plenty of them. Consider some of McKean’s sources and subjects: Albert Ayler, the legendary jazz saxophonist whose body was found floating in New York City’s East River (an apparent, though unconfirmed suicide); Donald Crowhurst, the amateur seafarer who set sail to circle the globe, but ended up adrift in the Atlantic, beaconing the water to swallow him up, which it did; Radio Raheem, the Boom Box-toting character in Spike Lee’s now classic film Do the Right Thing, whose murder ignited a race riot; and Hall and Oates (a.k.a. H2O) the soft-rocking duo whose creepy indelible love/loss songs could be soundtracks for suicide at sea. There is enough death in this work to go ‘round. And yet, it is also clear through McKean’s work that the final limit is never the last note in a song or a story; it, like anywhere else, is a fine place to begin, as good a place as rainbows (their inherent placelessness notwithstanding), and eerie glows, as sperm whales, as colonial expeditions, and as a 1967 McCullough chainsaw, as gold chains, as Mississippi River silt, and modern furniture design, as Fitzcarraldo and Home Depot, and as an Argentinian meteorite (its unfathomable origin totally withstanding) whose calculated place happens to be right here, in the gallery, displacing space with you and I. We could begin here, but we won’t. We’ll begin somewhere else. Above the groove.
Begin with object lust. The 1987 J1 Super Jumbo Promax Boom Box. McKean wanted it. Badly. According to everything it meant and could mean: one of the largest boom boxes ever made, it played a starring role in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, blasting out Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on the arm of Radio Raheem. Lee’s movie made the Promax into an icon—a symbol of resistance, racial conflict, and slick product design that’s since achieved a near-mythic status among certain collectors of 1980’s gear.
McKean found one on eBay, and it became an art object.
But then his landlord stole it.
He got it back.
Though not quite.
He sculpted an exact copy of the Box out of wood. An effigy.
Certain works of visual art seem to have their analog in writing, rather than objects or images, and McKean’s work is often striking in this regard. Like a poem rendered in three dimensions, McKean’s sculpture affects us through the things it collects (bits of history, popular culture, arcane knowledge, artifacts) and the accumulation of meaning outside its own breadth, it lives between consonants (e.g. lines, textures, edges) and dissonance (the friction of objects, the rawness of being) in the irreconcilable space between the thing (say, an expedition to an unknown land) and the representation of the thing (a handmade replica of the helmet worn by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, for example.) Here, the distances between things (whether problems of representation, geography, or psychic disconnect) are always considered, if not resolved—they are like breaths between words, a wind on the skin; listen closely, McKean seems to say, and you will hear the hum of the Earth turning; be still, and you will feel it on your face.
“I’m trying to understand things I can barely see,” McKean has said, “but [which I] still believe are palpable and real.” McKean’s adventuring spirit situates him among the explorers and dreamers whose stories are threaded into his work. In 2006, the artist employed a team of university researchers to help him find the longest navigable route around the Earth. The project involved a complex computer algorithm that tested the elevation of more than a billion points on the Earth’s surface to arrive at what McKean titled The Great Circuit. The Great Circuit is a conceptual artwork and a counterintuitive test of limits based on a hypothetical journey that may or may not be physically possible. As the catalyst for an extraordinary body of information—one born of hard science but which hovers unfixed to the realm of common utility—McKean performs a kind of radical, interdisciplinary sleight-of-hand. The Great Circuit project remains profoundly elusive even as it directly engages realms as diverse as phenomenology, mathematics, economics, ecology and spirituality. Why, The Great Circuit asks, do we so insistently privilege certain modes of being are methods of inquiry over others? What hierarchies are in place? What journeys are worth undertaking? Here as elsewhere in McKean’s work, what seems like an imaginative dalliance deftly slices to the core of what we value and how we choose to live our days on the planet.
The late sculptor Jason Rhoades described the impossible this way: juggling it, he said “was always an issue throughout my work – to take three objects, like a rubber ball, a chain saw and a live African elephant and try to juggle.” McKean’s affinity for risk and surreal convergence can be understood in a similar way, although it is crucial to note that McKean’s selection of objects and events is never random. Both artists, though, seem to have a vital appreciation for spectacular failure, and the generative possibilities that courting such risk can open up. “I’ve begun to understand failure and success as living in close proximity to one another,” McKean said in a 2007 interview. “With two opposing forces occupying nearly the same psychic space, the small gap between them becomes an extreme location. I like to imagine the work trying to negotiate this charged space, where it has to strain to keep everything together.” In two grand-scale installations of 2006 and 2007 (Riverboat Lovesongs for the Ghost Whale Regatta at Grand Arts, and The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows, at DiverseWorks) McKean clearly drew inspiration from the well of creative and physical strain, as he fashioned a forty-foot long riverboat of MDF and foam which referenced, among other things, Werner Herzog’s Sisyphean attempt to drag an actual riverboat up the side of a mountain in the Amazon jungle for the movie Fitzcarraldo. Smaller and more recent works, such as The Freeing of Cosmonaut Volynov and Pitcher Gooden’s Song (2007) likewise meditate upon the extremes of ambition, folly, and worse. In 1969, the Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov came close to being incinerated in mid-air when the space module he was traveling in failed to disengage from its companion craft. Like the once-celebrated, later-shamed American pitcher Dwight Gooden, Volynov survived one calamitous encounter only to find himself on the brink of seemingly inevitable destruction again a few years later. In McKean’s work, Volynov and Gooden’s contemporary mythologies converge as materials in a stark white assemblage; an elegy, perhaps, for the kind of dream that transcends space, time, materials, and cultural bounds. At the same time, the glint of humor in McKean’s homespun reproductions of Radio Raheem’s oversized Love and Hate rings alerts us to be cautious in any reading that would view the work as a sober paean to that most spectacular failure (or triumph) of all: Modernism.
McKean’s juggling at the limits of representation and experience, both within the work and as its maker, have led him to be characterized as a romantic optimist, a modernist in ship’s clothing, and a savvy self-saboteur. At stake in these readings is the deeply anxious question of whether any artist can escape modernism’s (or -isms’) impossibly strong gravitational pull. Perhaps it is more useful (and amusing) to consider Rhoades’ impossibility echoed in McKean’s 1967 McCullough chainsaw, in The Allegory of Rule and The Geometry of Wind (2007.) Liquid gold puddles and drips like fresh oil around the chainsaw’s base. “And would you save or live your life?” it goads the gentle viewer. “The beauty is in the failure.”