Complex and pretentious as its title, The Possibility of Men and the River Shallows delivers on a lot of its ambitious promises. It can’t be taken in all at once but must be explored — you stoop to see under the platform, peep to see inside the diorama, walk behind the piece to see the machinery behind the magic.
Wood, clothes, clay, carpet, Plex, plants, tar and tubing meet with
spastic abruptness. It’s as if a 40-foot riverboat has crashed into the
whale’s belly that is DiverseWorks and now 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: onstage 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
papier-mâché. One is funky, handmade, and sculptural; the other is all
business. The spinning fan becomes a giant ship’s screw and the wheel
gives the wind in your face an imaginary salt tang.
Onstage a wrecked riverboat collides with a stagelike platform of
charcoal industrial carpet. Rising behind the stage is a massive
Plexiglas aquarium and an even larger room-sized plywood box surrounded
by pumps and electrical wiring. The actors have dropped a sword, a sax,
a harpoon and a helmet, and deserted the stage, leaving the boat
wrecked on the rocks. Their childish tinfoil props lie submerged under
the platform with the other jetsam. It’s a rambling, melancholy musing
on the possibility of old-fashioned manly individualism. Albert Ayler
is dead, along with Ahab, Cortez and Mark Twain. Yet there’s hope:
inside the big box, the pilot house is still lit, lashed by artificial
rain, obscured by machine-made fog, 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
overeager 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, a flashlight, fire extinguisher and first aid
kit are clipped 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, and the rain, drenching. Even the carpentry underpinning the
piece’s fantasy elements is put together with fussy, intentionally
deadpan workmanship that denies its own aesthetic intent. McKean’s
stagecraft is impeccable.
Despite its imagery of collision and chaos, the piece is as stiff and
studied as a shop window display. Stylish and technically
sophisticated, McKean’s carefully disjointed style of composition is
familiar from recent painting — it embeds romantic narrative detail in
a matrix of bland modernist formalism. The Possibility of Men plunks
bits 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 the Hall & Oates
airhead 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.
Images courtesy the artist
Bill Davenport is an artist and writer living in Houston. Davenport was one of our first contributors.