Still lively: McGurk fixates with color

Michael McGurk, "Curvaceous."

It’s no secret that I like my art “new.” Give me artists who wrestle with ideas, who rework the expected into something startling, or who experiment with surprising media. When it comes to more traditional fare, such as figure studies and still lifes, more often than not I glaze over and take a pass (yawning as I go).

But occasionally, the sheer competence of an artist yanks me out of my been-there-seen-that slouch of apathy. Which is the case with Michael McGurk, whose oil pastel works are on display at the New Dominion Bookshop.

The 12 realistic still lifes– each 12 x 17” and presented in a gilt frame– break no new ground in terms of content, but they are nevertheless compelling, thanks to McGurk’s accomplished hand and passion for color. In “Curvaceous,” a simple tabletop composition of vegetables and fruit becomes lush via McGurk’s deft approach to pigment.

At the show’s First Friday opening, I asked the artist about the background of  “Curvaceous,” wondering if he began with black paper. He said, “No,” and excitedly explained he combined blue, brown, and black to create the velvety color. McGurk’s enthusiasm for manipulating his medium to create precise hues and effects is what elevates his otherwise mundane images out of the ordinary. An eggplant becomes subtly more saturated and an acorn squash more luminous than in real life.

Such skill only results from years of practice. Thousands of strokes, some evident, some not, power each painting. Another central component of McGurk’s work is his ability to convey light. Whether creating a convincing shadow from violet with a tinge of royal blue or using a bit of green and lilac to capture a reflection in a martini glass, McGurk revels in confronting lighting challenges.

In “Screw Can,” a label-less coffee can with a red plastic lid stands near an array of tools. McGurk uses purple and white (and, no doubt, other colors) to persuade the viewer of the circular indentations on the metal can. Meanwhile, the primary-colored handles of the tools– blue wire snips, a yellow box cutter, and a red vise– are not as straightforward as they initially seem. Yet the overall result is satisfying, with the right-to-left diagonal of the composition– sloping from the can across a funnel to the tabletop tools– carrying the eye through the composition.

Willfully not cutting-edge, McGurk relies on color and old-school skills to turn heads.

Michael McGurk’s exhibition of pastel paintings is on view at New Dominion Bookshop through April 29. 404 East Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 295-2552.