Robert McNealy

2 November 1982 - 20 November 1982
Opening Reception 2 November 1982 8pm

East Gallery:

Mercer Mnemonic: (Sample, Size & Relativity)

Robert McNealy’s current work involves an attempt to convey the associative elements of what might seem to be disparate events/subjects. Within his work he draws on a wide range of media (sculpture, painting, photography, etc.) to establish a parallel associative context between his activity and the socio/political environment. To arrive at this material/ideal ‘event horizon’ he considers in conjunction with the aforementioned materials, 1. the immediate physical environment, 2. the circumstances surrounding (or supporting) the exhibit, 3. the socio/political climate of the time.

Robert McNealy
Mercer Union

Richard Rhodes
Vanguard, February 1983

In the two years since he last showed, Robert McNealy’s work has stopped being site-specific. When I look at his new piece, Mercer Mnemonic: sample, size + relativity, I see it mostly in those terms. It’s not what the old work was – and from that comes all of its strength.

To understand this, we need to recall what being site-specific meant, and in McNealy’s case two years ago it meant starting with the gallery space at Glendon College and shifting it conceptually (shifting walls and objects etc.) until it aligned itself with the cardinal points of the compass. Real space was made to conform to some conceptual idea of it.

This last point is the important one. Glendon, McNealy’s site-specific piece was largely carried out in the head. It was a piece of conceptual art, something like an early Oppenheinn, only there was a lot of object-making, construction, realignment, a lot of physical material involved. But in the end, everything solid was only there to be broken up and moved by the imagination.

In the two years since then McNealy seems to have done some re-thinking about this kind of conceptual ordering, about the kind of power and authority it speaks for. The Glendon piece after all asked us to picture the world shifting, which is of course easy to imagine when your conceptual system reduces it to a ball in space or a collection of lines on a map – and these were the systems McNealy spun his piece from, the science and explorer systems, systems that put a high value on information and set out to conquer the world with it. But now he seems to want to reject them, reject information, reject anything that has the power to sum-up the way his site specific piece summed up the site and put it to the service of True North, True South. With his new piece he seems to reject the arrogance of that straight-ahead kind of linear connection; everything is much looser, much slower, much more physical.

You only have to look at the dominant line in the new piece to see this. It’s the line of objects that is set down on the floor, the middle of the three parts to the piece, a row of various models of things that McNealy has either seen or found, from a pure octahedron to a rustic looking train platform. In the old piece all lines had direction; they all led back to the map; they were all headed to somewhere plotted there – but not now. This row of things is finite, literally stopped by the two short walls at either end of it. And neither does it have a direction, at least not a direction along the line. McNealy has set his various objects up so that they sit diagonally, opening the line up side-ways so that it dissipates; passages are opened up that carry you to the walls where there are large charcoal and conte drawings. In fact the objects and drawings tend to run together breaking up the main axis of the piece. Instead, there is really just a confluence of things; a soft, subtle imaginative mixing of personal and public objects that seems almost in a state of suspension, the very opposite of the tight “going somewhere” in the site-specific piece.

The new work is all about this new lower-key appreciation of space. It’s not anxious about being rational, about being any one place in particular. There is a breadth to the proceedings, a palpably physical appreciation for intuition to make sense of things. Hence we have an upturned table seeming to project out from the wall to fill the hole left in the middle of the model of some building hoarding so that the legs of the table are transformed into towers, into futuristic architecture that runs up against the neighbouring model of the old-looking train platform so that even time is made to seem like it fuses into a simultaneous whole – but a whole full of gaps, full of a sense of other possibilities. The new work loves this openness, this subjective indulgence and yet it doesn’t eschew responsibility either, which is something you get an inkling of from the series of photostats of newspaper faces that sit off to one side of the piece registering political distress and tension. These are people hurt or suffering or imprisoned and their faces work like a conscience in the room, a retreat from daydream back to seriousness, and yet importantly true in the sense that these images don’t overwhelm the other images; they aren’t really even integrated with them; they are simply signs of a worry about something happening somewhere else; the worry having to take its place not quite alongside everything else.

Now this lack of “statement” is liable to bother some and yet to me this is the power of McNealy’s piece. He showed with the site-specific work something of what “statement” looked like, in the sense that the piece was tied tight with information, with rushing to an overview, with rushing from where you were to somewhere else. And it was all vaguely alienating. The new work, however, seems to place a certain value on the “inarticulate”. All those gaps between things, those gaps in the line, I tend to see as spaces where words aren’t; it puts you between the names of things, restored to a largesse that’s independent from all authority except intuition and imagination. It’s as if McNealy was engaged in a kind of space retrieval, in finding a way to remind us of the original breadth of things and not the self same tight crisis of newspaper pictures. His title says mnemonic, or reminder, and it is that looseness which I think he wants to remind us of. It is work about freedom; the very opposite of all the pre-determination that went into the site-specific work.