In the contemporary art world of stacked chairs as sculpture or mixing unlike styles in one painting, the art works of Seán McDaniel bring us back to the tradition of American realism with an urban twist. Known in the academic community for his leadership as chairman of the Fine, Performing and Graphic Arts Department at Fayetteville Technical Community College, he is known in the artistic community for being an artist whose subjects in painting are unlike anyone else in the region.
Visitors to Gallery 208 at Up & Coming Weekly will be able to see the range of his talent during his one-person exhibit titled The Works of Seán McDaniel. Figure-drawing studies demonstrate McDaniel’s sustained interest in studying the human form; his paintings reveal his attention to the human psyche.
After seeing examples of his ﬁgure-drawing studies, visitors to the gallery will readily understand the training it takes drawing from the live model to craft one’s skill sets, explore the expressive use of line, value and color and understand anatomy. For McDaniel, understanding anatomy is important to a realist artist whose paintings evoke psychological drama and conﬂict.
McDaniel stated, “This exhibition is a display of two of my main approaches to creating. One is my lifelong love of drawing the ﬁgure; the other is a reﬂ ection of my instinctual state of mind — I come from a people who are grand storytellers.”
The “people who are grand storytellers” is McDaniel’s Irish birthright. Born in Ireland, his family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was a child. Reared in Washington, D.C., McDaniel later was involved in the sport of boxing as a young man, eventually earning an MFA in painting from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
In the grand manner of storytelling, McDaniel’s style is reminiscent of the Ashcan School of painting in the early 20th century — speciﬁ cally the second generation Ashcan School of which George Bellows was a part in New York City. I look at McDaniel’s painting titled “Empire,” the bruised and swollen-faced prize ﬁghter, collapsed in the lower right corner of the painting, and I think of the painting of a ﬁght scene by George Bellows titled “Both Members of this Club.” Both McDaniel and Bellows use the ﬁghter(s) to symbolize more than the ﬁght itself, but a human struggle to win; how “sports can exemplify life.”
Although I haven’t asked McDaniel anything speciﬁ c about the painting “Empire,” for me, his artist’s statement reﬂ ects something about meaning in the painting. He stated, “For some time there has been a feeling of anxiety and a sort of social and ﬁ nancial unrest in the world. This has come down to each of us as a threat to our stability and at times peace of mind. The world seems very dysfunctional at times. There is anxiety in my imagery, often an element of optimism.”
In McDaniel’s paintings we can see his expressive use of color and the thick impasto-painting style are used to express mood, energy and the “not ﬁ xed.” The range of expressions on the faces in his paintings speaks to the vanquished, a struggle; chilling humor reveals something about the human psyche, the human condition.
I feel comfortable with the position that McDaniel’s approach to painting, his technique, is aligned with much of the philosophy of the Ashcan School in painting and the “art spirit.” His use of dramatic lighting, striking colors and brushwork enhance the immediacy of McDaniel’s painting — all underpinning to the aesthetics of the story. So why is something as simple as McDaniel’s brushwork important to the meaning of his work?
An explanation of the importance of the way an artist paints the canvas, the brushstroke, is best stated by the Ashcan School founder Robert Henri when he described the painted stroke. “There are ﬂ uent and abundant strokes; strokes that seem to be weeping. There are attenuated strokes, strokes that come from the brushes, which seem fully charged, as though they were ﬁ lled to the hilt and had plenty to give. Strokes mount, carry up and rise. The stroke of the eyebrow as it rises in surprise. Strokes carry a message whether you will it or not. The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of his spirit and the littleness are in it.”
Comparing Robert Henri’s explanation of the “art spirit” to Seán McDaniel, I can readily see the similarity in their philosophy about the process of painting. Henri: “I am certain we do deal in an unconscious way with another dimension than the well-known. It does not matter much to me if it is the fourth dimension or what number it is, but I know that deep in us there is always a grasp of proportions … and it is by this power of super-proportioning that we reach the inner meaning of things.”
Seán McDaniel: “I always work from instinct. I almost never know anymore what the things mean while I am doing them. Nor do I wish to. It is only after some time has passed that I feel some understanding of what the meaning is and/or why I did them.”
For me, I feel as if McDaniel is working in true Ashcan urban-realist style, supporting Henri’s credo —”art for life’s sake,” rather than “art for art’s sake.” Being able to see an exhibition of McDaniel’s paintings is to be in the Ashcan moment in our time in history: “… a moment in our lives when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such moments are of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall vision by some sort of sign. It was in hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-post towards greater knowledge.”
The public is welcome to attend the reception of The Works of Seán McDaniel on Thursday, Oct. 18, 5:30-7 p.m. During the opening the artist will talk about his work and answer any questions from guests at the opening reception. The exhibit will remain up until January 2013; the gallery is open Monday-Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.