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Finding Religion among the Ruins

Catalogue essay for Tetelestai: Notebooks from the Black Sea, 2003

In 1995 David McGee collaborated with Tierney Malone and Dava Darraugh to present an installation entitled Ruins in DiverseWorks’ main gallery. McGee’s contribution to that complex project consisted of a series of frescoes that lined a cooridor, identified in the installation as “The Grand Hall of Life.” The frescoes, which resembled contemporary cave paintings, reflected the personal struggles and internal conflicts of a fictional cast of characters invented by McGee and his collaborators.

In Tetelestai: Notebooks from the Black Sea, David’s first solo exhibition in Houston in more than five years, the artist’s gaze has turned inward. This time around, David presents works that is unapologetically reflective, intensely personal and wholly autobiographical. IN the weeks leading up to this exhibition, David remarked, “Everything I do is self-evaluation.” As self-evaluation is also in order at DiverseWorks during this, our 20th anniversary season, it seems particularly fitting to reconnect with McGee at this juncture in his artistic life and ours.

Inspired by the Conrad Aiken poem of the same name, Tetelestai explores the notions of the personal journey and the weight of the choices one makes along the way. Like a renegade composer, McGee pulls visual notes from seemingly disparate sources to create masterfully balanced works that connect fragments of his own experience. The exhibition is a musical memoir—McGee’s private collection of memories laid bare—with moments and characters from his life materializing to achieve immortality on the painted canvas. This memoir leads us through David’s past, revealing acute observations, emotional connections, and spiritual awakenings that have shaped the man he has become.

While all of the work in the exhibition was produced during the last five years, the subject matter spans the whole of McGee’s life and connotes a journey toward self-awareness. Known for his monumental figurative paintings and an affinity for employing techniques that lean heavily toward baroque, McGee makes a radical departure from past work with a series entitled “The Black Sea Paintings.” Lively, colorful, and uncharacteristically upbeat, “The Black Sea Paintings” are structured as grids containing isolated, often fractured images and symbols. David uses thes images and symbols as a visual code to create portraits or snapshots of people and events in his life. “Cold Mountain,” perhaps the most narrative piece in the show, combines David’s memories of his childhood in Louisiana and Arkansas and depicts the icy relationships that result when family members disconnect.

Profoundly influences by literature and music, McGee conflates and collapses distinctions between theology, poetry, philosophy, art and popular culture by celebrating all of them as equally valuable sources of inspiration and spiritual enrichment. This technique is best illustrated in “God in the Chocolate Factory,” a large-scale painting that depicts the split head of a man—a caricature of a face appropriated from a cookie jar. This image, which is used throughout the show to represent McGee, is surrounded by the names of poets, philosophers, social critics, classical composers and blues legends who have made an impact on McGee’s psyche. The artist’s reverence for literature is also reflected in “Omeros,” a painting connected to an epic poem in which author Derek Walcott unites his characters around the notion of the fundamental human need to strike roots in a place where one belongs.

Tetelestai is not devoid of the social and cultural criticism that has marked McGee’s work over the years. Portraits in the exhibition contain sharp commentary on the social, intellectual and artistic world of which McGee is a part. Much of this work centers on the idea of artist as commodity and portrays McGee himself as an object to be hunted and collected.

Tetelestai: Notebooks from the Black Sea is rooted in the artist’s own religious upbringing and layered with spiritual references. The exhibition’s title, a reference to the last words spoken by Jesus Christ upon his crucifixion, sets the tone for David’s own odyssey. The literal translation of this Greek phrase is “It is finished.” By using this phrase, David leaves us wondering whether in his own mind he has accomplished all he set out to or whether this signifies the beginning of something else. Where he goes next in his quest remains to be seen but there’s no doubt that he’s already managed to find religion among the ruins.

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