CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Magic moments: McDonald elevates the ordinary

Years ago, when I spent a Chicago summer cataloguing the Harris Bank archives, my boss would occasionally ask me to help his secretary stuff envelopes. The secretary and I, both in our mid-20s, discovered we had a lot in common. To stave off tedium, we'd talk about guys, but our preferences diverged– as an African American, she said she preferred "blue black" men and detested "rust" between the fingers. I had no idea what she meant, which made her laugh. It was a black thing, but she helped me understand.

That memory came back to me as I looked at Chicago-based photographer Cecil McDonald Jr.'s exhibition, "Domestic Scenes, Imaginary Play," currently on view at Second Street Gallery. His large, carefully constructed digital images explore everyday moments in an African-American family, presenting scenes at once intimate and universal, specific yet familiar. 

Using his own family as actors, McDonald re-composes activities all viewers recognize— changing sheets, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, a daughter-father argument in the car— and refines them with tender attention to the textures and colors of black hair and skin. He also includes several specifically African-American experiences, such as working through a little girl's hair with a hot comb.

Drawing inspiration from classical Dutch painting, McDonald's palette and meticulous lighting are dazzling. Rembrandt red, along with ochre, orange, violet, and blue, elevates his images from the realm of the mundane. Although the staging and lighting call to mind Gregory Crewdson's aesthetic, McDonald's approach illuminates the overlooked beauty of the everyday rather than the possibility of the fantastic.

Several of the exhibition's 13 images humorously explore generational issues. In "1200 Meditations, Things My Mother Gave Me," a little girl wearing a red shirt, white undershirt, and blue jeans on the left, prepares to put a record on a 1970s-era turntable atop an ornate white column. In the right foreground, another girl delicately holds a red-centered vinyl disc at eye level, examining it like a sacred relic, while behind her the Medusa-like head on the cover of Funkadelic's Maggot Brain screams from the couch.

Less compelling are McDonald's photographs that imagine his daughters' secret hideaway in an abandoned building. Though technically beautiful, these images lack the emotional connectivity of his domestic explorations. In the latter, his skill with color and composition reveals the richness of ordinary moments and enables McDonald to use universal understanding to celebrate aspects of blackness. 

"Cecil McDonald Jr.: Domestic Scenes: Imaginary Play" is on view through October 27 at Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.