Tod Lippy on Mary McDonnell

Mary McDonnell’s Untitled, 2007, provokes in me the same feeling I get when I come upon chalk boundary lines on a high-school playing field, or see a freshly furrowed field.

At first glance, the 44 red lines floating in the center of a sheet of Japanese paper convey a sense of order and pure geometry (a particularly modest Agnes Martin drawing, perhaps). A closer look, though, reveals the wavers, the hesitations, the minute tremors which identify this as a series of gestures from an imperfect (human) being, however disciplined or focused she is on the goal at hand.

Watching a video of McDonnell creating the piece is essentially the witnessing of—and to a degree, participation in—a meditative act. She stops occasionally to reload her pen and briefly regard what she’s accomplished so far—surveying the marks she has laid down, perhaps absorbing whatever energy their shaky, mesmerizing parallelism throws back at her in order to continue. For the viewer, the video documenting her process is also a kind of suspense film: each new line she creates ups the ante, and every time her hand makes its journey across the surface without a straightedge as guide, one is inclined to hold one’s breath. Something tells me she doesn’t share that inclination.

These lines are the iron-red of blood. Here, paper is skin, and these marks, created with the sharp point of a quill pen, function more as scores into its surface than lines on top of it. This effect is compounded by the pooled beads of ink that appear in four of the drawing’s upper lines. These strike me as the deeper cuts—caused once again by an all-too-human quavering—that draw the sustaining force beneath the membrane of the paper, and underneath all two-dimensional representation, upward and outward.

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