Sue McNally is working on “This Land is My Land,” a series of large-scale landscape paintings, one for each of the fifty United States. During the summer months, she takes road trips to states she hasn’t visited, camping along the way, sleeping under the stars, and gathering material. She returns to her studio, located in a converted mill in North Kingstown, RI, and begins to craft the paintings. When I stopped by, paintings of Missouri and Illinois, recently completed, were hanging on the walls and she had just returned from a trip to Wyoming.
[Image at top: Sue McNally in her North Kingstown studio.]
North Kingstown was the birthplace of Gilbert Stuart, the American portrait painter who painted one of my favorite canvases: theunfinished portrait of George Washington in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Perhaps growing up near the Gilbert StuartBirthplace & Museum, which McNally visited frequently as a kid, planted her deep-rooted interest in American history and culture.
The series began with a painting of Ruby Beach in Washington state. Piled with mounds of driftwood and tree stumps, the scene features black outlines (not visible on JPEG), suggesting that at this early stage, McNally was navigating the transition from drawing to painting. In later work, her brushwork and color become more refined, confidently capturing both the vastness of the landscape as well as rendering the textures of the objects within it.
Overall, the larger paintings are finely executed, and when substantial poured and dripped passages appear, they are deliberate and controlled. The colors, bright and clear, sparkle with energy. We discuss the notion of “looseness,” but it seems to me that McNally’s paintings are distinctive because of her singular focus, tight control, and the diligently applied brushstrokes that coalesce into convincing tree bark, rock face or pebbles. The nuance is in the detail.
In 2014, McNally showed a series of self-portraits at Auxiliary Projects in Bushwick that Paddy Johnson dubbed “middle age bad ass.” This fall several of McNally’s paintings are included in “Land Ho!” a contemporary landscape exhibition at the Fitchburg Museum that features work by New England artists Carrie Crane, Sally Curcio, Leila Daw, Warner Friedman, Michele Lauriat, Sandy Litchfield, and Shona Macdonald. Organized by Curator Mary M. Tinti and Koch Curatorial Fellow Emily M. Mazzola, the show, opening on September 27, aims to “to reboot and refresh more traditional preconceptions of the landscape genre.”
McNally’s process–both the roadtrips and the intensive, deliberate painting at such a large scale–presents an antidote to the congested schedules and information overload we’ve come to expect in contemporary American life. I have to confess that after my visit, I wanted to hit the road for points unknown and spend some time sleeping under the stars. I’m looking forward to the week in October when McNally will be the resident artist at Two Coats of Paint.