Excavation: Scott McCracken's Paintings By Phil King

In the early 1920s, animation promised to annihilate painting, or to show it up for what it had become – static, ever same, trapped within the confines of a frame that had become a kind of prison, cut off from the world and from life, or from the lively principle that suffuses all life worth living. Animation promised – for the critic and filmmaker Hans Richter – twenty-four Mondrians a second, which is so much better than one. Animation pledged kaleidoscopic experience. It promised not only to exceed painting through mobility and rhythm but also to do what cinema should do and was failing to do, as it became a conventionalised form, a banal representation.”

Thinking of Scott McCracken's pictures as paintings in need of light, of paintings whose actual work is subterranean and obscure, is somewhat confounding in the actual light of their usual brightly lit gallery presentation and the grit of their tactile immediacy. The contradiction between such self-evident qualities and what we imagine grinding away under this appearance – under its sense of preserved form – is a collision between what we fear is really going on under everything and the insistently 'on hold' condition of that same everything. The paintings fundamental realism is able to combine all seeing static surveillance with underground escape routes. They exist in a moment that combines the petrodollar and bitcoin mining, and I'm at a total loss to explain either.

When I look at the paintings the colour that compels me most is the black, the often textured black can cause an imagine of the hidden sides of planets or moons. I'm amazed at how close it feels, how absorbing its nature and it is easy for me to lose myself in its orbits. It draws me in. In paintings like Break Out (2018) the black is in the form of line, of trajectory diagrammed. In others like Big Crunch (2017) it makes us feel as if we are up against the coal face of painting itself. Cosmic distance burrows underground. Surrealism pounds at the doors deep below the surface of Scott McCracken's selfconsciously abstract work. To us, his paintings 'look like' they were painted in the 1930s by some as yet underappreciated minor artist, some lost radical painter who might have gone roaring off to the Spanish Civil War to join in the fight against Fascism. What we experience is the work of a make-believe artist, an Alias (2017) with a powerful grasp for memorable form, both reminiscent of the art-stars of his lost moment and reaching out to fresh horizons of his own. The paintings look well constructed and original, lucid... we can understand them alongside Paul Nash's more abstract phase, as being by an artist who foreshadowed Henry Moore drawing deep under London during the war. They feel like paintings by a forgotten painter who danced down Welsh coal dust lanes with a young Graham Sutherland, they reek of stale Gauloise cigarettes, of someone who spent some time in avant-garde Paris, and who maybe, finally, headed on the last boat to New York. Somehow we don't doubt their period drama Britishness, and yet they also are the embodiment of a displaced DeChirico-esque 'untimeliness'. Romance entombed. Kenneth Clark would have surely been impressed, though the punchy title of one of them – Sidesplitter (2017) – speaks of a contemporary humour which betrays the startling degree of time-tunnelling at work, and would probably have led that old Civilisation connoisseur to, confused, withdraw patronage. These paintings challenge their own dreaming.

The work's serial nature comforts our sense of belonging, it links it to the repetition of some ongoing order but also, seen – or rather imagined – at a distance, that's to say 'in our minds eye', we know that this seriality harbours something else, something rather less consoling, some sort of disavowed fracking operation under it all. The slow litany of painterly seriality connects with the mechanised logic of a breaking down old film projector. The inevitable stately pace of new paintings arriving every few months or so is catastrophically at one with the immediate, yet wholly imperceptible, jackhammer staccato of this metaphorical projector. Despite their oddly familiar appearance, his paintings intuit something earthshaking. Under the horizon, un-monitored tremors can be sensed.

The colour in Scott McCracken's paintings is strange, somewhat acrid. Sidesplitter is exemplary of this palette. High keyed yellow strains to the light of the white setting the clash of viridian green and the orange-tinged red in within a heightened eyestrain... the black, that black, anchors the whole construction, visually and texturally tying it to the rectangle of the canvas itself. That yellow radiates through the black. A flood of bright light and the deepest grimy shadow combine. Other paintings seem to combine different lights within their final destination. Carbide and limelight. He uses colour contrast to great effect, efficiently – orange/blue reoccurs, red/green underlies – often the paintings rely on a single colour tone to provide contrast to the insistent black drawing. Black oil pollutes bright Acrylic. The overall result is a coherent sense of colour vision across paintings, one that, for us, triggers a sense of other colour, another light... a virtual one.

To mimic the effect that I am trying to describe let us wave our hands in front of Scott McCracken’s paintings, fingers apart. Let’s imagine, if we can, one of his pictures at twenty-four frames a second. It is there, continually interrupted, that we can glimpse the deep grotto in which his work finds its artificially constructed life – it is in momentary flashes of rhythmic insistence that his tunnelling can not only be merely imagined but tangibly felt. It's as if his actual colours carry a virtual echo, sounding out a larger matrix, as if we can 'see', almost by means of a rudimentary, fictive, sonar, the hidden scale which his paintings shore up. And it really doesn’t matter that this feeling is made up.

Scott McCracken’s many canvases begin to share a spooled nature with cartoons, or at least the pioneering cartoons at which the Dada and Surrealist visionaries glared approvingly in the dark between the wars. They are pictures that develop a latent communal nature almost despite themselves – each one is strongly individual, and has a compelling solitary affect – yet they also fall for an untold and wild communism of spirit, an arcane Mickey Mouse communism that rejects any form of common sense, or even any laws of physics, an anti-state network of repetitions made with the simplest and most direct of means. It's on the scale of Disney animation before he became Disney, of all those communist artists in a history unspoiled by Stalin, drunkenly bellowing the Internationale. We are talking hyperbolically about a movement here. Madly inventing one. But they are paintings so there is no movement. In fact, they interrupt movement.

Daring travellers set off on a panoply of jaunts through extensively scattered ruins in a world in which physical laws have been upended. The dynamite of the split-second explodes this world, notes Walter Benjamin. Space is stretched and contracted by montage, while time is overextended and speeded up in time loops. Cartooning always operates with anti-physics. And it outbids the individualism of madness and dreams by producing ‘figures of the collective dream such as the earth-encircling Mickey Mouse’.”

While we should prudently hesitate to characterise Scott McCracken’s paintings as ‘Mickey Mouse' paintings – none of what we are trying to imagine can be backed up with any visual evidence – we can’t surely be prevented from speculating that Mickey is something that hides upside-down in the imagination of the dark cellared horizon, within the powerfully moving juggling forms, that the canvases help provoke, digging away deep below the clear evidence of their surface legislation; a grotesque 'Guy Fawkes/Mickey Batman' perpetually caught in the illumination of his final act. Holding all the cards.

Such fitful thinking cuts through Scott McCracken's paintings implacable surface evidence. We are in a situation where excavating blindly deep below the surface interrupts that surface's visibility so that two in-compossible lights counteract each other. Two rhythms that syncopate; one virtual the other actual. Interruptions interrupted. The smokey shadows, as we dig down into imaginary underground galleries, occlude the rather more real art gallery lighting. We can 'see' the diagrammatic repeated motifs, the shapes and forms that come at us again and again in his paintings, as half imagined movements glimpsed, as monstrous life shared unnoticeable between frames. Each painting seems to form an arena for jostling dramas, presenting them as evidence that bounces off their internal edges, but evidence of what? The Gargoyles have snuck in via the crypt... the Catholics are rolling in the barrels under Painting's State Parliament, the bats have left its belfry for darker, deeper climes. There is life in the catacombs of painting's city – off the books gambling and trade plays out unscrutinised – in the darkness Trolls dance Troll dances whilst the titles of Scott McCracken's paintings begin to trip off our tongues: Card Clash, Backbreaker, Sidewalker, Parallel Parker, One Too Many, Break Out, Big Crunch, Cold Spot, Third Wheeling, Sharpshooter and Double Downing, Matchmaker. All is, obviously, not what it seems, and yet it is precisely exactly that. A real poetry interrupted.

Phil King is an artist, writer and co-editor of Turps Magazine.
Quotes from: George Souvlis. Interview with Esther Leslie: For A Marxist Poetics of Science.Verso