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Review: Robert McNally

Exhibition: Robert McNally

One in the Other, 45 Vyner St, London E2 9DQ, 28 June – 29 July

It’s hard to resist doing the obvious and situating Robert McNally’s minutely detailed and painstakingly executed pencil drawings somewhere between the otherworldly geometries of M.C.Escher and the irreverent fantasies of Paul Noble. The exceptional execution of the work draws attention to itself and it’s easy to enjoy the drawings as virtuoso doodles, done for the velveteen delight of the pencil-work itself. But there’s something looser and more frivolous in the authority of the five drawings that make up the show, which bring to mind the frustrated imaginary landscapes of words just off the tip of your tongue.

In Making it with Tom Lowe and Howard Hughes (2007) a duck with a cratered, donut-shaped planet around its neck and bagpipes for a body and legs reaches through the upper window of a distant attic with a bagpipe-arm. Is it the duck that’s dreaming? Suspended from the planet like limbs of a puppet are the dismembered floors of a house: parquet flooring; an empty chair sitting expectantly before the open door of an oven; a soft-focus bedstead and an undulating plot of carpet like patchwork grass. There are other floors and surfaces too, but they blur and shoot downwards as though that part of the dream sidesteps recognition.

Heart Mirna (2007) looks like it might offer some relief for the light-headed. Pictorially it’s more resolved, in that the image is spatially complete and looks reassuringly quotidian: it’s just a rectangular crevice cut into corrugated cardboard that reveals an equivalent crevice in brick behind it. It looks like some children have climbed inside to play hide-and-seek. But once again things don’t really add up. Too many hands to make sense of hold the edges of brickwork from the inside as though their owners are concealing themselves or supporting the structure of the building. A rope of plaited hair snakes through the rafters and merges momentarily, indifferently, with the tail of a cat. Economies of meaning are set up to be dissolved in the space between figure and ground afforded by the pencil-work in the shadows.

McNally’s pencil work is provocatively provisional (and the hanging of the work – unframed and nailed through the paper itself – plays on this). The shape-shifting nature of the elements in each composition interrogates the possibility of conclusive meaning-making in a way that’s both facilitated and illustrated by the skillful authority with which the marks are laid down. The discrepancy between the provisional medium (of sketches, plans, notes…) and its assertive application both supports the structure of McNally’s project and conceals it beneath the seductive veneer of exceptional draftsmanship.

Tamarin Norwood

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