Charles McGill: In the Rough
29 May - 21 November 2021
Charles McGill (New York, 1964-2017) trained as a figurative painter and taught art and golf professionally. These disparate worlds were united, galvanized by a moment of inspiration, after someone commented on the oddity of the artist donning a golf bag at a gallery opening.
Gerald and Sondra Biller
In the Rough
By Joe Lewis, guest curator
Golf. I never understood the game. All I knew was that it killed a lot of Saturday and Sunday TV for large swaths of the year. It seemed silly. But more importantly, even as a young Black child, I knew that the game was not for me, unless, of course, I wanted to carry a heavy bag around in the hot sun and watch from the sidelines. But this reminds me of my first day working for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, where I was hired to coordinate “Jackie Robinson: An American Journey,” a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his historic entry into major league baseball.
As I reviewed the archival materials, memorabilia, knickknacks, toys, baseball cards, uniforms, etc., I came across a photograph of a senior Jackie jumping up in the air with his arm raised, which I immediately read as a Black Power moment. The title of the photo was “Hole-in-One.” That was 1986, pre-Tiger Woods, and I was thirty-three. I had been oblivious to the accouterments which should have told me this was a golf thing. Then I met Charles.
The 2021 exhibition, Charles McGill: In the Rough is a snapshot of McGill’s layered exploration of golf as creative and intellectual fodder. Traditionally trained in classical painting and drawing, the discovery of his soon-to-be-muse was serendipitous, and resulted from an errant comment made by a woman during a gallery opening in New York’s Chelsea art community. Having never seen someone carrying golf equipment at an art opening, she asked Charles if she could take his picture. It was an ah-ha moment as McGill thought, “If I could somehow incorporate golf, golf equipment … paraphernalia … into my studio practice, and combine it with my desire to work through race and representation, it [would be] a perfect marriage.” He recognized the world of golf as the perfect substrate material to host new narratives about the “well-worn theme” of race and representation and the ongoing struggles of equal access, equity, and societal participation for those who are typically excluded. McGill weaves those issues together with a biting visual lexicon and disturbing satire, calling out the “other world” of white privilege by using its own systemic codes which sustain an exclusive and elitist social and physical infrastructure, such as country clubs, tournaments, etc. But, and perhaps more importantly, in deference to the political frenzy associated with these themes, McGill’s work does not devolve into propaganda, as he never loses sight of art as an aesthetic action.
Another title for the show could be Charles McGill: Cover, Reveal, and Evolve, reflecting his significant production milestones which follow those intransitive verbs’ behavior.
McGill’s initial foray into golf territory was a formal, additive process, addressing the game’s cultural issues and implements by “covering” them with antithetical things instead of, as he does later, disrupting their resilient physicality. He lampooned the glistening symbols of white prerogative by creating a Black golf ball, dreadlock-covered wooden drivers, and the Lynch Bag, his first collaged golf bag. It is physically usurped by multiple lynching images, illuminating one of the most incomprehensible interventions within the history of American racial injustice, and thus transmogrifying the object’s bourgeois leisure trope with the unambiguous evidence of “civilization” gone awry.
Another product of his early oeuvre is the multi-year performance piece Playing Through (2001-2007) and his creation of a mythological alter-ego, Arthur Negro, a Black Power advocate and founder of the Former Black Militant Golf and Country Club and Club Negro. An irony-laced social club for post-militant radical Black activists, its conceptual origin and purpose was well- documented by McGill in his now lost text, “The Complete Brief History of Club Negro:” “Club Negro is a place where Black Americans find themselves politically listless and ineffective. It is where the luxury and comfort are the goals we seek to obtain…”
The representational impulse is a foundational attribute of McGill’s traditional training. His knowledge of the African Diasporas history and literature is evident and illustrated by other works in the exhibition. Heart of Darkness is an homage, not so much to Joseph Conrad, but Chinua Achebe’s piercing commentary about colonial oppression and vicious exploitation. Skull, a composition of what resembles yokes or collars from golf bags, could easily attach its lineage to the abandoned welded metal fragments of Mel Edwards’s “Lynch Fragments.” Edwards’s focus on the past paves the way for McGill’s underlying social critique of today. McGill uses the transitional object of the humble and benign golf bag as the connective tissue between the world of discrimination and the Other.
Now relieved of the obligation of illuminating the one-point cultural perspective of race and representation, whether tongue-in-cheek, head-on, or by hyperbole, he chooses such universal forms as the circle and square, to frame more layered conversations. These works inspire surprise, curiosity, and a new set of questions. McGill calls it “painting-informed assemblage;” he goes back to his roots. Sculptural pieces such as Shredded Quilt and Summertime focus on applying the leather, plastic, and fabric materials in the same way that he layers paint on a canvas to create form and texture.
For example, in many ways, one can literally read Shredded Quilt as a violent ripping of golf’s socio-political tropes into shreds and its subsequent Woke comeuppance. And then the real-world brutality of tattered fragments casts torso-like shadows, gently swaying in the breeze created by gawking viewers. It could refer to the rural legend of African American quilts containing secret maps of plantations and the countryside for runaway slaves’ navigation towards freedom. Regardless, the tangled environment also reads like a demiurge trying to create order out of chaos, a poetic recitation extolling the virtues of proportion and harmony, heightening the awareness of the boundaries between life and art. We could also have a lively discussion about Summertime‘s bullseye motif and how contemporary Black art’s social gestalt would assume it represents the police targeting and killing of young Black men, which it does not. It just so happens that it was made at a point in time clouded by the fury of such socio-political tragedies. McGill was consistently clear about developing his ideas, formal considerations first, and taking full advantage of unexpected adjacencies, abstractions, rhythms, and memes.
Joe Lewis is a nationally known non-media-specific artist, professor of art at the University of California, and president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation. He exhibits frequently, most recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca, Mexico; Museum of Modern Art, and James Fuentes Gallery, New York. His work is in notable collections, including The Los Angeles County Museum CA, Studio Museum in Harlem, Deutsche Bank, and Museum of Modern Art, NY. Lewis has written for Art in America, The LA Weekly, Artforum, and his essays regarding the confluence of art, technology, and society appear in anthologies and peer-reviewed journals.