Complex and pretentious as its title, The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows delivers on a lot of its ambitious promises. Wood, clothes, clay, carpet, Plex, plants, tar and tubing meet with spastic abruptness. It's as if a forty-foot riverboat has crashed into the whale's belly that is Diverseworks and lies jumbled with the undigested remains of the beast's other meals. Apparently it's got a taste for heroes and hardware, with a special fondness for plywood.
The piece has two distinct modes: on-stage and backstage. This dichotomy is set up right in the vestibule by a truly giant industrial ventilation fan and an equally heroic ship's wheel made from lumpy paper mache. One is funky, handmade, and sculptural, the other is all business. It's a grand, aggressive beginning. The throbbing fan becomes a giant ship's screw and the wind in your face takes on an imaginary salt tang.
The weathered deck of a wrecked riverboat leads into the main gallery, where it collides with a stage-like platform of charcoal industrial carpet. Rising behind the stage is a massive Plexiglas aquarium, and an even larger room-sized plywood box hooked into a welter of pumps and electrical wiring.
On-stage, scattered props outline a rambling, melancholy musing on the possibility of old-fashioned manly individualism. The boat has wrecked. The actors have dropped a sword, a sax, a harpoon and a helmet and deserted the stage, leaving the boat on the rocks. Their childish, tinfoil props lie submerged under the platform with the other jetsam. Albert Ayler is dead, along with Ahab, Cortez and Mark Twain. Yet there's hope: inside the big box, a lonely pilothouse heaves unsteadily, as it is lashed by artificial rain and obscured by machine-made fog. Motors grind and pumps cycle keeping a Hollywood simulation of the heroic ideal alive.
McKean fights shy of outright fantasy, restraining his theatrical effects by leaving them unfinished: we get half a riverboat, half painted barrels, ill-sewn clothing and lumpy, amateurish gold-leafed objects. The transparently artificial construction of the staging implies these male identities are equally artificial.
Backstage it's all wires, pipes and plywood, put together with over-eager Boy Scout preparedness. Fourteen aluminum binders hold a thousand pages of aimless source material. A satin-smooth plywood cabinet holds a rack of speakers that could blow the roof off Diverseworks, yet the music is supplied by an incongruously tiny iPod nano. In the pump room, McKean clips a flashlight, fire extinguisher and first aid kit to the wall, ready for anything.
McKean's thoroughness is impressive. The weathered planks have just the right greenish mildew; the carpentry has an enviable workmanlike solidity. The tarry black paint coating the submerged jetsam has the sticky sheen of fresh creosote. The huge diorama works: the fog is realistic, the rain drenching. Even the carpentry underpinning the piece's fantasy elements is put together with fussy, intentionally deadpan workmanship that denies it’s own aesthetic intent. McKean's stagecraft is impeccable.
Where other accumulation artists rely on improvisational flair, McKean calculates. Despite its imagery of collision and chaos, the piece is stiff and studied like a shop window display. The carefully disjointed style of composition is familiar from recent painting- it embeds romantic narrative detail in a matrix of modernist formalism. The Possibility of Men plunks nuggets of history into a sea of tidy carpentry and cubist color.
Loosely woven narrative collages like McKean's always teeter on the edge intelligibility. They stir together recognizable fragments of imagery like vegetables in minestrone; they either blend into a fine stew, or remain an incoherent mess. Whether it gels becomes a matter of the viewer's willingness to fill in the gaps. McKean's piece offers no help, alternating earnest intentions with ironic parodies. The soundtrack is typically sublime and ridiculous. Albert Ayler's melancholy free-jazz "Love Cry" alternates with and Hall & Oates airheaded pop hit "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)". Does McKean mean it? He does and he doesn't. For me, it works.