Intent and Accidents: Arnie McBay

Like many of the artists whom I highlight in the ongoing artist features here in The Sound, I first encountered Arnold McBay’s work in a group exhibition when I was traipsing around Niagara. The Grimsby Biannual is a juried show that often is diverse and shifted greatly in the last two incarnations I’ve experienced. McBay has had works in both of these, and there’s conceptual and formal aspects that appeared in the thick, painterly, very symbolic but somewhat ‘pop’ work I saw nearly four years ago, and the more subtle, less excessive but still very minimalist in mark and motif in the most recent show. The GPAG Biannual of 2016 featured his work Glyph, with a clean black symbol on a chunky, almost plaster-like, white surface: the more recent juried exhibition included his For Kazimir, a more ‘rough’ work that was similar to many I saw when I visited his studio earlier in 2019.

Recently, McBay shared some of his work at the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge in downtown St. Catharines, and we continued our ongoing dialogue about his practice and the ideas that shape it. A phrase that I threw out that evening, that applies equally to the older works I’ve mentioned here, and to the newer, digital animations and ink and water works, is that often McBay ‘surrenders to the materials’ or ‘surrenders to the process.’

McBay’s website offers a number of works from past and ongoing series: what I’ll be focusing on here is newer work, both because that was what he was presenting at the 5 x 2, but also because, as with most artists, the work he’s making right now is most prescient in his mind.

His words: “(O) is part of a continued examination of the border between writing and drawing focusing on the active or generative potential of writing…as the richly black ink flows and sprawls through the water in each of these works it maps out its own path, separate from my hand. Each (O) is a portrait of the natural processes of its own making.”

The names echo this approach: Wholeness, Lines, Scrawl, Zero in Multiple or Zero in Partial. These suggest an almost mathematical basis of their creation, with the wet-in-wet bamboo brush, pen and ink on Yupo paper (a non porous substrate, like mylar, but aesthetically appearing as clean white paper) being as much about recording or transcribing as mark making. The delicate washes, the gentle or sometimes abrupt ‘bleeds’ – like coral, organic and unpredictable, perhaps uncontrollable – all have a zen like quality, and seeing these details and finer intricacies is what made me initially describe McBay’s aesthetic as ‘surrendering’ – or perhaps submitting to the innate and unique qualities of – the material.

Several works in this series are titled Poem in three lines. There’s a strong literary sense to what he’s doing (here, or in the aforementioned Glyph): McBay has collaborated with people like Greg Betts, and both are influenced by the concrete poetry works of bpNichol (or one of his successors in the Canadian contemporary poetry / art / performance / slam it all together and defy classification scene, bill bissett). When I was still a teenager, I ‘read’ – or experienced is a better word, both for Nichol and for McBay’s flowing cuneiforms or contemporary hieroglyphs – Nichol’s Selected Organs (still one of my favourite ‘books’) and, more relevant to McBay’s artistic explorations, ABC: the Aleph Beth Book.

McBay also spoke of the meditative quality at play: ‘giving up control of the process, the pleasure of spontaneity’ and being ‘enthralled by the inherent surprises – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – in the process. In some ways these works are more akin to writing than drawing, with beauty and aesthetics as a secondary matter, or perhaps a proposed widening of the idea of beauty.’ Interestingly, one of the best drawing instructors I’ve ever had spoke of how one must loosen, and that one of the dangers of learning how to draw well and responsively is that your handwriting might become unintelligible, as you would ‘complete the motion’ or ‘complete the shape’ instead of forcing yourself to submit to the (perhaps) restrictive and boring ‘rules’ of cursive writing. ‘I only set something in motion here. Other than the base forms (circular and linear) all marks, shapes, forms and textures are a result of the natural flow of the ink into the water.’ (McBay)

He’s also created animations of these (O)s (you can see one here), and it wasn’t until after he and I spoke last, and I let my head clear, that I realized what they truly reminded me of, and how that only expands his practice. In the movie Arrival (based on Ted Chiang‘s wonderful ‘The Story of Your Life’), humanity experiences first contact with aliens that are so physiologically different that communication seems nigh impossible (they have eyes all around their cylindrical ‘torsos’, so ‘front’ and ‘back’ are – ahem – alien concepts to them, and consider how much those ideas, as metaphor or ideological positions, define our language and interactions…). But when the visitors begin ‘writing’, their ‘marks’ ebb and shift, are often circular in framework, and flow and bleed and change, suggesting a variable multiplicity of meaning. The aliens write their language in the moment, but also sometimes ‘backwards to forwards’, not describing what is, or what was, but – as is revealed in the story and film – what also will be.

After all, to bastardize Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who claimed a word meant exactly what she wanted it to mean, why should we use words and symbols that are static, unchanging and stagnant, when the world is not? McBay’s (O)s are already uncontrollable and responsive to stimuli unpredictable and subtle, and in their repetition by the artist there is an acknowledgement of how each is important and essential to that moment. Then that moment is gone, and you make another, or set the stage for another to make itself. Meaning is fluid, and (forgive me, I must quote a post structuralist) is NOT a clear medium through which meaning travels unmolested or unchanged.

Arnie McBay is a mixed-media artist working in drawing, sculpture and installation and he teaches studio courses at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. You can experience more of his work at his website.