Patrick Mcfarlin at Goodwin Fine Art in Denver

A Scratch on the Wall closes July 30. Get there while you can.

A Scratch on the Wall

(Paraphrases and portraits of iconic art & artists)

Patrick Mcfarlin paints miniature masterpieces. A 12” x 16” copy of Clyfford Still’s 1954 or a 12” x 12” copy of Agnes Martin’s Untitled #5. Viewing his exhibit at Goodwin Fine Art one gets a brief lesson in art history, albeit incomplete. His miniature copies were created to accompany graphite portraits of artists, critics and curators.

The show title is taken from a quote by William Faulkner: “The artist knows he has a short span of life. That the day will come when he must pass through the wall of oblivion, and he wants to leave a scratch on that wall.” A scratch to show that he was there. A scratch to suggest that he mattered. And this is what Mcfarlin explores through these works. What mark did these people leave? What is there impact? How do they influence artists like Mcfarlin working in his studio in New Mexico?

Mcfarlin began exploring this body of work in 2008, inspired by the obituary postings in Art in America’s Annual Guide. He was initially struck by how the lives of these art-world celebrities were reduced to a two-line sentence—a mere scratch on the wall or surface of their lives. He began researching who these artist’s were and the work they left behind. Below is a list of some of the people he explores and presents:

Bruce Conner, James Brooks, Allen Kaprow, Fred Sandback, Dorothy Miller, Willoughby Sharp, Anne D’Harnoncourt, Wally Hederick, Willem de Kooning, Richard Wollheim, Ibram Lassaw, Larry Zox, Angus Fairhurst, Barbara Schwartz, Kirk Varnedoe, Charlotte Moorman, David Wojnarowicz, Julio Galán, Pierre Restany, Gerrit Henry, Mario Merz, Jason Rhoads, Grace Hartigan, Roy Lichtenstein, John Coplans, Richard Wollheim, Issac Witkin, Jess, Francis Bacon, Richard Diebenkorn, Theodoros Stamos, Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, Joan Mitchell, Clyfford Still, Agnes MartinRichard Pousette-Dart, Robert Blackburn, and Allan Stone.

The drawings kept coming to him and he kept putting them up in his studio and showing them in galleries, where viewers kept trying to put them in context. Did he admire these artists? Were they friends? Acquaintances? Favorites? The answer was no, they were just names in a magazine. And Mcfarlin didn’t quite know what to say.

“I didn’t know how to help them. Didn’t quite know what the project was, or is, about. Something about the brevity of life. The brevity and neutrality of a few “known-for” sentences. Neutral territory, yes, as opposed to laying out an expressive narrative with an exuberant brush.”

It was then that he decided to cover the paintings of these icons the way a musician plays and interprets a song. He wanted to make them into a familiar tune. So he added the miniature versions of the artist’s work, but nothing more from the curator’s and critics.

“And this gets me back where I want to be—into paint—conducting a very small orchestra with my pigment on a stick,” Mcfarlin writes in the introduction to his accompanying book for the exhibit, featuring all his portraits and paintings.

Somehow I found this show not unlike what artists are expected to do in academia. How we study art history to find out how things change and shift, exploring the theories and ideas behind the work. How students are often taught to mimic, copy and find inspiration in other artists. Critics do it. Roberta Smith has talked candidly about retyping all of Donald Judd‘s review’s while doing her Whitney Independent Study program and how it helped form her own unique style by bumping up against Judd’s sparse language.

Mcfarlin has painted for decades and began studying art in 1958 at the Memphis Academy of Art. His earlier works are figurative, portrait-like and abstracted landscapes. The portraits in “A Scratch on the Wall” are often grids and hint at Chuck Close. But it’s his William Powhida-like drawings of Agnes Martin’s note’s for a lecture that speak the loudest.

“There are two parts of the mind. The outer mind that records facts and the inner mind that says “yes” and “no”. When you think of something that you should do the inner mind say “yes” and you feel elated. We call this inspiration.

For an artist this is the only way. There is no help anywhere. He must listen to his own mind.

The way of an artists is an entirely different way. It is a way of surrender. He must surrender to his own mind.

When you look in your mind you find it covered with a lot of rubbishy thoughts. You have to penetrate these and hear what your mind is telling you to do. Such work is original work. All other work made from ideas is not inspired and it is not art work.”

This falls somewhere in the middle of 18 pages of notes that Mcfarlin has painstakingly drawn and painted, accompanied by a Mcfarlin portrait, pointing out that Agnes Martin resided in Taos, NM and had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992.

Agnes Martin is more than two sentences. Just as Art in America condensed these individuals to mere scratches on the wall, Mcfarlin has done the same and it seems he has intentionally selected the most banal things about the person to disclose. The snippets that some editor somewhere found or thought to be important. And while many artists who study at Ivy League art schools will be able to identify nearly all of the people Mcfarlin explores in this series, that cannot be said of artists from the rest of the country. Most don’t pay that much attention to other artists. Living in the West, artist’s may know other artist’s in their community, but they aren’t hanging out at the Cedar Tavern. And many artist’s rarely attend other art exhibits or visit museums for that matter, for fear of borrowing or appropriating.

Mcfarlin does more than appropriate, he copies. And I can’t help but ask, is McFarlin’s work here made from ideas as Martin described? Yes. Yes it is. According to Martin, it might not be art work at all, but merely ideas. And Mcfarlin has now covered the work of some of the finest artists we have known in America. Which makes this show interesting in an educational way. It’s informative. It reminded me of art world figures I had forgotten and it brought to my attention some of whom I was unaware. It is also intriguing for it’s quality drawings and portraits of famous people from the art world. However, the miniaturized copies of famous paintings are like doll house versions. They are not available for sale without an accompanying graphite portrait, and this is a critical distinction Mcfarlin has made. It isn’t about recreating miniature masterpieces, it is about how those works interact with snippets of information we are given about these people’s lives.

I have no doubt Mcfarlin was inspired to make these works, this series. He has been at it for three years. But what I long for is an artist who penetrates their rubbishy thoughts. I want to see what happens when Mcfarlin conducts his orchestra with pigment on a stick. I want the expressive narratives made with an exuberant brush. I want to see what he does with this knowledge, this experience, and how it impacts the work he will make next.

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